Florida shifts coronavirus restrictions to travelers from NYC area

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to follow the lead of other states issuing broad shutdowns to control the spread of the coronavirus, instead shifting the onus to outside travelers whom he blames for bringing COVID-19 into his state.

DeSantis issued an executive order Monday requiring anyone arriving on a flight from New York City, Connecticut and New Jersey to self-quarantine for two weeks, the toughest restrictions any one state has imposed on others during the crisis. He extended that order Tuesday to anyone arriving by any means of transportation within the past three weeks.

“We don’t want to get seeded as people flee the hot zone,” DeSantis said.

Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, the state’s areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, have a particularly close relationship with New York, earning South Florida the nickname “The Sixth Borough.” Many residents are New York transplants: In 2018, the most recent year for which numbers are available, more than 63,000 New Yorkers migrated to Florida, close to double the residents of the next closest state, neighboring Georgia. Yankee baseball games are broadcast on local radio. And this is the time of year many transplants’ families visit.

“A lot of people in Florida are going to be put off,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday shortly after DeSantis issued the order. “But I also have to be honest that I understand.”

A check of online flight boards at Florida’s six busiest airports Tuesday afternoon showed that about 40% of approximately 150 flights from the New York area were canceled.

It was hard to gauge how many were due to DeSantis’ order. Flights nationwide have plummeted: U.S. airlines have cut most international flights and announced plans to reduce service domestically by up to 40% in April. More than 8,300 U.S. flights were canceled Tuesday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

Arriving passengers were asked to complete forms with details about health, travel and locations they’ll stay. DeSantis said National Guardsmen would be deployed at some major airports to collect forms. He said violating the order would constitute a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by 60 days in jail and a $500 fine, but that he expected most to voluntarily comply.

Diane Cascio, a 55-year-old hairdresser from Fort Lauderdale, returned home from a visit to her mother and son in Long Island on a Tuesday JetBlue flight that carried only six passengers.

She completed the form and dropped it into a box monitored by a person in a National Guard uniform. She called that intimidating but said the person didn’t check it or request an ID to verify the information.

Cascio said she had learned about the order about an hour before departure and was given the option of canceling, but she returned to the home she shares with her 31-year-old daughter.

“They didn’t quarantine her. They quarantined me. There’s a big Catch-22. … So it’s not really a true quarantine is it?” she said.

Valdemar Ozuna worried he’d have to quarantine in Florida after taking a flight to Orlando on Tuesday from Kennedy International Airport in New York — one leg of a roundabout trip home to Corpus Christi, Texas, from Australia.

Ozuna said he spent three hours trying to find out whether he fell into Florida’s quarantine requirement since he’d only been in the New York airport for five hours. He called JetBlue, which referred him to the Transportation Security Administration. He was later referred to the Florida Department of Health, the local health office in Orlando and finally a hotline. He hung up after staying on hold for a half-hour.

Ozuna said he completed the required form on the plane but no one took it from him in Orlando.

“The flight attendant asked one of the crew members on the ground what they should do with the papers. They said, ‘We haven’t been told anything about that.’ I still have it,” Ozuna said.

Sarah Wilson, who lives in Guilford, Connecticut, has elderly parents who reside in Naples, Florida, during winter. She said she’s worried about what might happen should either have a medical emergency. “That two weeks would mean I might not be able to see them,” she said.

Wilson said she usually flies out of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, when she goes to see her parents. But she also noted that she could easily fly out of Rhode Island, which isn’t included in DeSantis’ order.

“So I can take a flight out of Rhode Island instead of Bradley? Suddenly, I’m OK to come?” Wilson said. “Ultimately, limiting certain states isn’t going to solve the problem.”

Florida has more than 1,400 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 17 deaths. About half the state’s cases are in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have imposed tight restrictions on business and residents. But testing remains limited and has yet to show any cases of the virus in a third of Florida’s 67 counties. Another third have reported only a few.

The virus causes minor flu-like symptoms in most people, but it’s highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Those with severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators, stressing the health care system’s capacity to respond.

While moving to stem possible infection from outside travelers, DeSantis said he hadn’t issued a statewide shutdown as New York, California and others have done because he was trying to balance safety concerns with the need to avoid undue economic harm. The tourism-dependent state has already closed most beaches while Disney World, Universal Studios and other attractions popular with out-of-state visitors shut down more than a week ago.

DeSantis noted that requests for unemployment benefits have spiked, to 130,000 in four days last week, compared with 28,000 for the entire previous week. DeSantis asked President Donald Trump to declare Florida a disaster area, which would make the state eligible for federal aid. Trump hasn’t acted on the request.

Pointing to videos he said he’d seen of California block parties, the governor said he wasn’t even sure the bans in place have been effective.

“Wouldn’t it just be better to go to work? You are probably going to transmit the virus less in the office than you are with a bunch of drunk idiots,” DeSantis said.

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