There are between 6,000 and 8,000 Jewish students at the University of Florida, the largest Jewish population of any public university in the United States, according to Chabad. Like other universities around the nation, UF called off classes and sent students home to take online instruction on March 19. But fully a third of UF’s Jewish students have chosen—or been asked by family members—not to come home. Their families were fearful of their carrying the infection with them as it seems Florida has become a glowing hot spot of COVID-19. Some Jewish students from outside the U.S. were unable to join their families abroad because of COVID-19 spread in their own countries or fear of infecting older relatives at home. The state system said that those students, or others with “extenuating circumstances,” would be permitted to remain on campus. So Chabad, which has already been distributing Shabbat-in-a-bag meals, will be distributing seders-to-go to many of those isolated on and around UF.
The UF families had reason for concern. Florida, home to many retired Jews and “snowbirds,” has been wobbly in its response to the growing COVID-19 crisis. By March 30, the state health department said there were 5,473 reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the state and 59 fatalities.
A March 27 article in USA Today was headlined: “Florida, home to millions of elderly residents, doesn’t have enough coronavirus tests. Could it be the next epicenter?”
Similarly, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis said at a March 23 press conference: “We’re expecting to see more. That’s just the nature of this.”
Half the state’s reported cases have been in the South Florida counties of Miami-Dade (491 cases) and Broward (412 cases), where the Jewish population is concentrated.
Traditionally, many Jewish snowbirds return to their homes in the Northeast and Midwest for Passover. Now those trips may be delayed. DeSantis announced on March 23 that anyone arriving from New York and Connecticut will have their temperatures taken at the airport and will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. On March 28, DeSantis added travelers from Louisiana, especially the New Orleans area, to the list visitors required to self-isolate upon entering the Florida, and ordered the Florida Highway Patrol to establish checkpoints at entry points to the state.
The number of confirmed cases throughout the state have been rising sharply in recent days, which DeSantis attributes to increased testing. As elsewhere in the nation, Jewish religious services and communal activities throughout Florida have been postponed, canceled or shifted online.
There has been considerable criticism of DeSantis for his timid, tardy and disorganized reaction to the pandemic. In a March 22 editorial, The Miami Herald wrote: “With Florida’s economy crashing under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis is working overtime to preserve our status as the world’s leading exporter of political comedy.” The editorial compared his performance in the crisis unfavorably with decisive actions taken by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont.
For example, DeSantis was slow to curtail spring break activities, allowing thousands of college students to congregate in close proximity to the Gulf and Atlantic beaches. Much as these governors in hard-hit states have had to take action in the absence of coherent national action by Trump, hard-hit county governments in Florida have had to do the same in the face of DeSantis’ inaction.
President Donald Trump’s “Winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago is in neighboring Palm Beach County, which has reported 118 cases, including three fatalities. Mar-a-Lago is considered a coronavirus hot spot since a number of Trump’s recent dinner guests who attended a fundraising weekend for Trump and the Republican National Committee have subsequently tested positive. Members of the club were informed by email that it would undergo a “deep cleaning.”
One of the Mar-a-Lago guests, Lana Marks, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, attended a dinner where at least one member of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s entourage later tested positive for the virus. Marks told State Department employees that “she did not consider herself at risk because the dinner was outside and she believed the virus could not withstand the Florida heat,” according to The Washington Post.
Marks’ belief that the effects of the virus will be reduced by warmer weather is widely shared, although it has not been scientifically confirmed, Dr. John Lednicky, a virologist of the University of Florida Department of Global Health, told the Orlando Sentinel. “There are researchers making predictions out there, I’d love to see what they’re basing it off of,” Lednicky said.
Some studies, including several in China, have suggested that heat may be a factor in transmission—possibly speeding it—but none have been peer-reviewed.
Central Florida has thus far been less affected. Orange County, where Orlando is located, has reported 156 cases. Adjoining Osceola County 53 and Seminole County 49. Hillsborough County, which encompasses Tampa Bay, has 167 cases.
Another area of concern is The Villages in Central Florida, a massive, over-55, retirement community of 100,000 in Central Florida. It is a Republican bastion where golf courses have recently reported that all tee-times have been taken. The community of more than 100,000 sprawls across Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, with just one synagogue. Of the 50 cases reported in Lake and Sumter counties, 23 are Villages residents, according to state figures, reported in the Orlando Sentinel.
On March 21, a bipartisan group of 14 Florida Congress members called on Trump and Vice President Pence to provide “vital medical supplies, equipment, and personnel required to protect healthcare professionals, treat patients and combat the spread of COVID-19” in Florida.
DeSantis owes his 2018 GOP nomination and election to President Trump, who endorsed him over another party favorite, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. DeSantis has been reluctant to criticize the president’s handling of the pandemic.
In the face of this inaction, Florida State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide office, has attacked DeSantis’ handling of the crisis, and his unwillingness to issue a mandatory, statewide stay-at-home order.
In a statement issued March 26, Fried, who is Jewish, said, “Governor DeSantis MUST issue a stay-at-home order NOW! DeSantis needs to lead right now. He has to send a message to everyone in this state that we need to do what’s best for everyone and stay home!”
“Already, nearly two dozen states—including New York, Illinois, and California—have implemented similar restrictions to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The faster we act, the more lives we save and the sooner we can rebound.
“This is a health crisis like we’ve never seen before. The number of COVID-19 cases in Florida are sharply increasing. We cannot afford to lose any more time.”
On March 27, Fried pressed her campaign, appearing on radio and television stations across the state. More than a thousand health workers from around the state have joined Fried, writing in an open letter to DeSantis that a statewide, shelter-in-place order is “the only hope of limiting peak incidence and overall mortality rates, as can be seen empirically from other countries.”