By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, who runs the bluest county in Florida, leads a surprisingly subdued campaign against COVID-19.
Straining to keep up with coronavirus data while treating desperately ill patients, doctors warn that toothless protection rules will have increasingly dire outcomes.
But when pressed to do more to regulate behavior and try to limit the virus’s spread, Henry and other Broward County officials claim they’re powerless to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis. On Sept. 25 he declared the state fully open for business; other counties have pushed back, but Broward has not.
The order suspends the collection of COVID-19 related fines and penalties for individuals. Also, it puts the onus on local governments to establish why their restaurant capacity limitations–down to 50 percent and no lower–are “necessary for public health.” The order doesn’t recognize that capacity rules help effectuate social distancing.
“Because of the governor’s order, I am compelled to expedite the opening of certain establishments,” Henry explained in a Sept. 25 email to USF (University of South Florida) Health News.
Henry defends COVID response
Broward county commissioners appointed Henry to serve as Broward’s top administrator in 2008. Her current salary is $347,716 a year.
Henry said this week in an email interview with Florida Bulldog that the county has been “proactive” about monitoring and fining individuals and businesses for violating COVID rules –but isn’t collecting any fines, to comply with the governor’s directive.
The county hasn’t challenged DeSantis because, Henry wrote, “We believe we have the ability to make adjustments within the confines of the Governor’s orders and have done so.”
Such deference to a Republican governor by Broward County, which in last week’s election emerged as the state’s biggest Democratic stronghold, didn’t shock Dr. Jay Wolfson.
“You’ve got a blue county and you’d think that alone would serve as the basis for behavior we’d like to ascribe to liberals,” said Wolfson, senior associate dean for health policy and practice at the USF Morsani College of Medicine in Tampa.
However, he said, “Not all liberals are civic-minded. Many are extremely self-centered, narcissistic and spoiled.”
No-mask fashion statement
In urban South Florida, the state’s pandemic bull’s-eye, scientists expect COVID-19 to make a deadly comeback. Now it’s setting U.S. records with an average of 111,000 new cases a day, The New York Times reported.
Infections and mortality haven’t spiked again in South Florida “and that’s a blessing,” Dr. Jean-Jacques Rajter said. The Fort Lauderdale pulmonologist spoke with Florida Bulldog last week at the end of a long day in an endless series of long days spent counseling patients from behind a mask.
But it’s a blessing with a brief shelf life.
“If we do not become smarter in how to interact, how we can maintain physical distancing from one another and wear masks and other proper protective gear, we will be in the same situation as other parts of the country,” Rajter said. “And to me it’s not if, it’s when.”
Yet pre-pandemic normal is a dominant fashion statement for some. Late at night, in packed bars on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, mostly maskless drinkers show zero tolerance for social distancing. And they’ll stare down–or worse–anyone who threatens to interfere with their right to a carefree good time.
“Americans as a rule have historically been very bad at exercising preventive and prospective behavior because we are an instant gratification society,” Wolfson said.
Suffering, death out of sight
Stressing the urgent economic need to revive local diversions and tourism, Broward County supported and set rules for a street art fair and international boat show last month.
Coming up: the Exotics on Las Olas Car Show this weekend and an air show set for Nov. 21-22 that always draws huge crowds from greater South Florida.
But away from the boulevards and unknown to most residents, especially wealthy white ones, an invisible stalker wreaks suffering and death.
As of last weekend, Broward counted 89,751 confirmed infections and 1,545 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Status Report. Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard reported a Broward positivity rate of 6.6 (the percentage of infections out of every 100 tests) for the week that ended Saturday, up from a recent low of 4.2 on Oct. 30. A rate of 5 and under triggers relaxed COVID rules.
“When we have protective measures implemented we see improvement, so that’s an important indicator that when we are not following everything as strictly as we need to, we’re going to see COVID recur,” said Dr. Shahnaz Fatteh, president of the Broward County Medical Association.
Media has moved on
“Without some kind of a true mandate, you’re going to see pockets of people who refuse to adhere to good practices,” she said.
That may sound like old news–so 2020, given the universal longing to move on to a new beginning, immunity and prosperity in 2021.
Indeed, media reports about the coronavirus focus on the latest developments, currently Pfizer’s promising drug trial and President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID task force.
“We’re not seeing CNN going through the ICUs anymore,” Fatteh said. “That story has been told.”
But that’s where we are right now, eight interminable months into the pandemic.
COVID fatigue is real, Wolfson said. “Even those of my colleagues who are staunch public health advocates are getting tired of this.”
Flouting COVID rules at art fair
Calls to avoid one potentially virus-spreading Fort Lauderdale event were ignored. Ten local doctors petitioned the county to cancel the Oct. 17-18 Las Olas Art Fair, but it happened anyway.
Photos show spotty violations of the advertised protection rules, including one that required registration to attend, in order to limit the crowd size.
“We hoped at least the promised safety protocols would be maintained, but by late the first afternoon the ropes separating show patrons from the street pedestrians were down and a small share of attendees were observed wandering the show freely without masks,” said Stan Eichelbaum, head of the Fort Lauderdale Alliance for Good Government.
By the second afternoon, observers reported no apparent attempt to curb people who hadn’t registered and fewer in the crowd wore masks, he said.
“All of the precautions were thrown to the winds,” Dr. Rajter said. He had declined to sign the petition to cancel the fair, hoping a carefully controlled event would have a positive economic impact, he said.
Henry said city and county teams closely monitored the crowd and enforced the rules. She offered as evidence this cheery assessment by the Sun Sentinel: “Those who were not wearing masks quickly put them on when reminded.”
Neighbors respond to DeSantis
Broward’s neighbors have taken a firmer stance, enforcing stronger mask mandates and canceling money-making gatherings or doing them virtually. Unlike Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties did not rush to implement DeSantis’s Sept. 25 order.
Jon Van Arnam, deputy county administrator in Palm Beach County, said businesses would not be exempted from fines for violating mask rules, Florida Phoenix reported. And Carlos Gimenez, Miami-Dade County’s outgoing mayor, announced no change to an 11 p.m. curfew, with violations carrying a $500 fine and/or up to 180 days in jail.
Henry said when COVID citations were challenged in court, the county defended them successfully. Around the state, judges have sided with counties against attacks on mask ordinances.
Six were filed by Republican State Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Clermont, west of Orlando. He lost them all.
On Sept. 2, Volusia County Judge Randell Rowe dismissed the most recent Sabatini filing, writing, “The ordinance is authorized not only by statute but by well-settled case law precedent dating back over a hundred years,” according to Floridapolitics.com.
Test case waiting to happen
Marlin Muller, a Miami lawyer who focuses on state government, said counties can enforce strict regulations provided they don’t conflict with the governor’s executive orders. Curfews seem to pass that test, for example.
But deciding which rules conflict and which do not is up to a judge, said Muller, who added he doesn’t take a position for or against COVID regulations.
Apparently neither Broward nor any other local government has used the courts to put DeSantis on the defensive about his COVID orders by filing a lawsuit against him.
Wolfson of USF, who also teaches health law at Stetson University, said a county could, if it had the political will and resources, prevail on the basis of its home rule authority to protect residents’ health and welfare against assaults by anyone, including the governor.
“An executive order says this is what I want you to do. Well, what if he’s wrong, not just morally but legally?” Wolfson asked. “Broward County can test the order, and while they’re testing it they can get an injunction and do whatever they want based on the increase in disease.”
But Henry rejected out of hand the idea of suing DeSantis. Wolfson should talk to the Broward County Attorney’s Office, she wrote, “as I am required to get my legal advice from them.”