Florida faces pressure, sees record high virus deaths

ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON and BRENDAN FARRINGTON

MIAMI (AP) — Florida tallied on Thursday a new record high in daily confirmed COVID-19 deaths for the third straight day as the state faces pressure to outline new measures to combat the pandemic.

The Florida Department of Health said 253 more deaths were reported raising the state's total death toll to 6,586.

The new deaths bring the average reported deaths per day to 154 for the past week, second only to Texas in the resurgence of the outbreak. Florida’s current rate of deaths is about one-fifth of those logged in New York at the height of its outbreak in mid-April.

The head of a congressional coronavirus oversight panel sent letters to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and three other Republican governors Wednesday requesting documents to show how their states are fighting the pandemic.

According to the letter, Florida is not following three recommendations outlined in a White House coronavirus task force report by allowing gyms to remain open even in worst-hit Miami and Tampa, permitting a larger capacity for indoor dining and not limiting social gatherings. The report hasn't been made public.

The request by South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat, comes days after White House coronavirus task force leader Dr. Deborah Birx implored leaders to close bars and for residents to wear masks.

The letter also says Florida is only partially complying to other guidelines by not mandating masks in all counties with rising test positivity, singling out Polk County as one that is currently not requiring the use of facial coverings. DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate.

On Thursday, DeSantis spoke to reporters after watching the launch of the Mars rover in Meritt Island and was asked about large crowds gathering to watch the liftoff, many of whom were not wearing masks.

“Our guidelines have been that physical distancing is important, closed sustained contact is what is the best mechanism for transmitting the virus,” DeSantis said before lifting up a mask. “If you can’t maintain the physical distance, wearing the mask, this may be able to stop some of the droplets. It doesn’t stop them all."

Another recommendation the state may be only partially follow, according to the letter by the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee, is Florida's order to close bars in late June. The measure allows restaurants that make more money selling food to operate bar-top seating, and it has drawn crowds to establishments such as sports bars.

Counties such as worst-hit Miami-Dade have implemented curfews to discourage social gatherings in such establishments. Neighboring Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, has also ordered a curfew. And in the Florida Keys, two residents were jailed for failing to quarantine after testing positive for the new coronavirus.

Florida’s efforts to keep the outbreak under control have been complicated by Tropical Storm Isaias, projected to head north along the state’s east coast over the weekend. Emergency officials announced they will close state-run COVID-19 testing sites late Thursday and through the weekend as a precaution.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Florida reported each day remains high, at 9,956, with a cumulative tally of infections now surpassing 460,000.

But the number of patients treated for COVID-19 in Florida hospitals continued to decline Thursday, with 8,425 logged in the state’s online census in the late morning — down about 300 from the previous day and down more than 1,000 from peak levels last week.

Even with hospitalization trends improving, schools in South Florida and the Florida Keys have already announced they would start their school year fully online in late August.

DeSantis continued to advocate for schools to teach in person this fall, saying children will be affected with the online models.

“With this distance learning, how many kids will just totally fall off the map after doing this for months, and months and months? Remember, we started this with 15 days to slow the spread,” DeSantis said Thursday. “It was never supposed to be just keep society in the fetal position indefinitely.”

Officials have avoided reinstating widespread closures and safer-at-home orders, but the economy continues to be affected.

The toll on Florida’s theme park industry was reflected Thursday in second quarter earnings from Comcast, which owns Universal Orlando. The company’s theme parks division shrank to $87 million in revenue from $1.46 billion a year ago.

But the reopening of Disney World, one of the state’s largest employers with a 77,000-person workforce, probably helped bring down the number of jobless claims in Florida. About 87,000 people applied last week compared with almost 109,000 claims the previous week.

However, less than half of the 43,000 unionized workers at the resort were called back to work when the theme parks reopened earlier this month after closing in March.

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Farrington reported from Tallahassee.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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