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ALACHUA COUNTY – On March 16, 2020, President Donald Trump recognized the growing threat of the Corona virus that had grown from a single case on Jan. 20 to more than 4,500 cases and at least 88 dead in less than five weeks. Many of the countries that were already battling the pandemic had found that social distancing and limiting events with crowds had proven an effective way to slow the rapid spread of the disease.

The president acknowledged that the Center for Disease Control and members of the others health organizations were warning of the continued spread and the need to slow its pace. They recommended closing non-essential businesses, limiting events initially to 50 and eventually to10 people and staying in home isolation except for essential trips.

At that time, Trump said that Americans could be hunkered down and practicing social distancing at least until July or August. He added that the country "may be" headed into recession as businesses are forced to lay off millions of workers, and the outbreak could last into the summer, perhaps as long as August. But both the seriousness of the pandemic and the effect on the economy were underestimated.

It was a necessary step for the government to take but would have big consequences both economically and politically. Exactly one month later on April 16, Trump announced he thought it was time to reopen the country, despite cautions from medical experts, and announced a set of guidelines. The 18 page “Opening Up America Again” identified the circumstances that states should achieve before beginning the three-stage reopening process. The president also suggested a date for opening in 14 days, on May 1-4.

“We must have a working economy. And we want to get it back. Very, very quickly. And that’s what’s going to happen,” Trump said at a White House press briefing after announcing the new guidance. As many as 29 states “will be able to open relatively soon,” Trump said later in the briefing. “We have a lot of states that, through location, through luck and also through a lot of talent ... are in a very good position.”

Federal Reopening Guidelines

The guidelines state that states could consider a three-stage reopening after they “had 14 days of a downward trajectory of cases,” but left it open that they could consider all influenza-like symptoms instead of just COVID-19 cases. It also required a “downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests) and a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing.”

Testing requirements did not include increased general public testing, which, according to medical experts, needs to be much broader than is currently available.

Hospitals also have complained that they have not received enough tests. Currently, testing is limited to people showing symptoms. There are individuals who are asymptomatic without symptoms who can carry and spread the virus, so this type of testing does not identify everyone who is infected and can spread it. It also limits the numbers of population tested, thereby decreasing the figures on actual infections.

The White house also made these guidelines not mandatory and left it up to state governors to decide when their state met the criteria to start Phase 1. So far, no state has met the 14-day downward trajectory in cases, but 29 states are opening to varied degrees. Part of the rush is due to trying to restart the economy, both nationally and locally, and get people back to work. Another aspect is political. For many governors, some citizens are tired of restrictions and want out. There have been protests in several states and some elected officials are worried it could affect the upcoming elections.

State Actions

Some states like Georgia are going full out, opening a variety of close contact businesses such as hair salons and bowling alleys and allowing group activities that were not recommended until Phase 2. Others are more cautious and extending their “stay at home” orders for another two weeks.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is supporting the reopening timeline while also trying to create a measured approach to reopening. He is trying to create a statewide policy but is determining openings based on local conditions and allowing county governments to determine when conditions are right. While this has created some confusion on what rules apply and who is in charge, it also allows more flexibility and perhaps less culpability to the state government.

Currently, the governor has approved retail businesses and restaurant to reopen as long as they use either outside facilities or only allow 25-percent capacity in interior settings. All citizens are required to wear face masks in situations where they will interact in indoor environments, but can remove masks in restaurants to eat. State and county parks are open, but social distance requirements of six feet still apply. Elective surgeries can resume. Bars and nightclubs are still closed and events over 10 people are still limited, although DeSantis made an exception for religious services. He has also reopened all beaches and hotels. Some counties with high levels of COVID-19 were not included in the governor’s reopening.

The “Stay at Home” order Governor DeSantis issued has been in effect for less than a month and was created after several counties, including Alachua County, initiated their own and maintained lower infection rates. While DeSantis has claimed, somewhat correctly, that Florida's numbers have been lower than expected due to the state's county by county approach, only two-percent of the population has been tested and there have been questions over how the data is recorded. State records initially did not include anyone who was not an official state resident, which discounted any seasonal residents. Last week, the Florida Department of Health asked the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, which sets minimum and uniform standards for statewide medical examiner services, to stop releasing its own comprehensive list of COVID-19 deaths. The medical examiners' death tally was 10 percent higher than that of the Florida Health Department,

Public Cooperation is Vital

Regardless of requirements mandated nationally, statewide, or locally, the effect of these measures is reduced or rendered useless dependent on whether the public follows them. Partial populations following guidelines is ineffective if others do not.

Some individuals believe they are immune or protected, that restrictions are an attack on their personal liberties, and are pushing to have all restrictions lifted regardless of scientific information available. Numerous conspiracy theories have surfaced and have influenced opinions without consideration of facts. An important consideration with spreading COVID-19 is not simply whether a person will get seriously ill, but the possibility of others being affected because of people disregarding mandated and recommended measures. If people cooperate and work together for the safety of all, the reopening can work. But if it is dismissed by some or rushed too early, it can cause a stronger outbreak and undo the progress already made.

This past weekend, two days before the new rules went into effect, the boat launch on US 27 on the Santa Fe River was so crowded that cars were parked in the woods and on the shoulder of the road, with the vehicles packed together. While some people seemed to maintain the distance rule, others gathered in larger groups and no one was wearing masks. It appeared that no one cared.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a situation that has not been faced in over six generations. Whether the time to reopen is premature or accurate will be determined in the next few weeks. The chance of success will be based on the decisions of leaders and on the willingness of citizens to cooperate.

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