It’s now clear. Controlling COVID-19 is on us, the people of Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis made that apparent during a news conference in downtown St. Petersburg on Friday when he announced the lifting of the remaining statewide coronavirus restrictions on businesses. Restaurants can open at full capacity. So can bars, unless municipalities have restrictions in place. Concert halls and sports venues can fill back up, with some social-distancing protocols. Personal responsibility — making good choices — has always played a role in the fight against the virus. But now it’s more important than ever, no matter what you think of the governor’s decision.
It’s not clear why the governor chose this moment, when it feels like we’re at a tenuous crossroads. The numbers of positive coronavirus cases in the state are way down from their peaks in July, and not as many people are dying each day. Reopening K-12 schools hasn’t caused a huge uptick in cases, at least not yet. A few colleges have had coronavirus outbreaks, but nothing as bad as counterparts in other states. Even Florida’s unemployment rate has dropped faster than the national average. The still-battered economy has shown other signs of life, including increases in spending and solid home prices.
But — and this is a big but — the coronavirus numbers are still high, and in some cases trending in the wrong direction. New cases in the state have increased slightly throughout September. In Hillsborough, the seven-day case rate on Sept. 22 was 13 percent higher than a week earlier, and the highest it had been since Sept. 2. COVID-19 hospitalizations, once dropping quickly statewide, have leveled off and in some larger counties are going back up. And people are still dying. Florida recorded another 122 deaths on Friday, crossing the 14,000 threshold on the same day of DeSantis’ announcement.
The governor genuinely seems to feel that reopening is what’s best for the state at this time. But part of his order suspends the penalties for anyone who violated social-distancing rules, including those who violate mask mandates. That’s dangerous and counterproductive to opening the economy. Masks are an effective, inexpensive and non-invasive way of controlling the virus. Keeping the virus under control makes people feel better about going out to eat or to a concert. In other words, they will be more likely to take part in the economy. But the governor undermined that synergy by suspending the penalties.
So, again, it comes down to us. Do the right thing — practice social distancing, wear a mask in public, understand the risks. Those things will help keep you safe, which helps the economy rebound. The governor has pushed more chips onto the table. Here’s hoping the gamble pays off.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news