The Sunshine State has been a notable hot spot for the coronavirus, particularly because so many senior citizens -- one of the most vulnerable populations for COVID-19 complications -- call Florida home. Now, statewide cases are on the rise. And while Governor Ron DeSantis has made it known that he feels Florida's farmworker population is to blame, the Department of Agriculture says differently.
It seems Florida might be taking a big step backward in terms of health -- despite the Governor's insistence that the state continues to move forward. On June 17, the state reported another 2,610 new confirmed coronavirus cases in a single day; there were 5,393 new cases tallied between June 16 and June 17 alone, with another 8,886 new cases confirmed between June 4 and June 11. In total, the state of Florida already has 82,719 known cases of COVID-19. And because the state continues to push through reopening stages, it's likely those cases (and subsequent hospitalizations, perhaps) will continue to rise.
More than 65 million people in the U.S. provide care for a chronically ill or aged family member -- a scenario many Floridians know all too well, given the percentage of elderly residents. Until recently, the governor had put much of the blame for rising cases on high-risk facilities like nursing homes and prisons. But DeSantis has since doubled down on his claims that migrant farmworker communities are causing the spike -- claims that have been refuted by the Department of Agriculture.
According to Iowa State University, farmland makes up 80% of all U.S. farm assets. Since Florida agriculture represented 2.2 million full- and part-time jobs to the Gross State Product in 2014 and the state has over 9.5 million acres of farmland, it's no wonder that the farming community would be substantial. But DeSantis argued that Florida's farms -- many of which, he said, require workers to live in close quarters -- have been tied to the surge in positive cases.
In a statement to the press, DeSantis explained:
"You have very risky working conditions, particularly in these farm camps or with some of these construction workers, you know some of these guys, they go to work in a school bus, and they’re like sardines going across like Palm Beach County or some of these other places, and you know just all these opportunities to have transmission... There was a migrant worker from Miami that went up to this watermelon farm, was positive with COVID. They figured that out. So then they tested 100 workers at the watermelon farm and 90 of them tested positive. So that’s a 90% positivity."
But state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried responded to this claim by stating that the governor was acting "recklessly." The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stresses that the agriculture industry is not to blame for a surge, with their spokesperson delivering the following statement.
"The Governor is mistaken regarding agriculture being a primary driver of COVID-19 in Florida. Commissioner Fried has been in close, regular communication with Florida’s leading agricultural associations throughout COVID-19. There is evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in areas where farms are located, but the vast majority of farmworkers left agricultural communities several weeks ago, as harvests have ended. As the Governor continues to prematurely reopen Florida, we’re seeing increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and positivity in recent weeks, including the state’s highest-ever single-day number of cases just yesterday. Many areas where cases are spiking are in non-agricultural counties, such as Broward, Duval, and Hillsborough, which have seen their highest positive case days in over a month. The Florida Department of Health has not communicated to our department any specific concerns about agriculture and COVID-19. Commissioner Fried’s 10-page report to the Governor’s re-opening task force included recommending that all farmworkers have adequate PPE, access to adequate healthcare and COVID-19 testing, and are able to practice social distancing on farms and food processing facilities. With her encouragement, many agricultural producers are following these recommendations. Commissioner Fried recommended that the Governor work with her to ensure that PPE, healthcare, and COVID-19 testing for farmworkers be provided, but has not received any response."
The spokesperson for FDACS, Franco Ripple, also hinted that the Governor himself might be to blame, citing the state's reopening plan as the probable cause for the case spike: "As the governor continues to prematurely reopen Florida, we’re seeing increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and positivity in recent weeks, including the state’s highest-ever single-day number of cases just yesterday. Many areas where cases are spiking are in non-agricultural counties, such as Broward, Duval, and Hillsborough, which have seen their highest positive case days in over a month."
From all accounts, it seems as if DeSantis will continue to forge ahead with reopening and doesn't seem keen on the idea of making CDC-recommended precautions, like mask-wearing, mandatory to stop the spread.
Commissioner Fried added, "Governor DeSantis has lost control of Florida’s COVID-19 response. His policies are simply not working, and he’s recklessly reopening Florida despite the data screaming for caution."
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