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Where’s the legislature?

OPINION

BY LEN CABRERA

Normally politicians crave the spotlight, but COVID-19 has driven our state senators and representatives into hiding, happy to let Governor DeSantis take all the heat from the coronavirus outbreak.

Nearly three months ago, I reviewed Florida statutes governing a state of emergency and used the governor’s own metrics to argue there is no justification for a public health emergency. (Read the column here.) Unfortunately, politicians at all levels across the state are enjoying the powers granted by the state of emergency, which allows them to ignore statutes, policies, and procedures that make government accountable and responsive.

By statute (252.38), counties are empowered during a state of emergency to ignore rules on appropriating and expending funds. They can also ignore established procedures for entering into contracts, incurring obligations, hiring workers, and more. In 252.36, the governor is empowered to reallocate all state resources, including personnel and the functions of state agencies, without any type of supervision. Worse, he can “suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute,” which practically guarantees capricious, unaccountable government.

The state legislature needs to come out of hiding and take control of the situation. The emergency management statute (252.36) allows the governor to extend the state of emergency indefinitely, 60 days at a time. The legislature not only needs to end the current state of emergency, they must immediately fix this section of the statute to require the legislature’s approval for any extensions after the first 60 days. This will ensure more accountability and guarantee that there is an actual emergency that necessitates the drastic powers that the state claims for itself during a declared state of emergency.

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We’re over six months into this “emergency.” I put it in quotes because it’s hard to claim a 0.14 infection fatality rate as an emergency. Less than 4% of hospital beds statewide are being used for COVID patients (2,283 of 60,498). That’s 0.01% of the population hospitalized. The percentage of emergency department visits for coronavirus-like illness (CLI) is only 1.6%, a number that has been dropping steadily since it peaked in early July.

There has been plenty of time for the legislature to debate and hold hearings on the proper response to coronavirus, rather than allowing the governor and state agencies to act with no accountability. A legislative session would also provide a bipartisan forum so single-party cities, like Gainesville, can’t ignore their health administrators because they disagree with the politics in Tallahassee.

For example, there has been no oversight of the Florida Department of Health’s (FDOH) reporting of COVID-19 statistics. It took nearly four months to get FDOH to properly report deaths by date of death in addition to the daily dumps of accumulated death reports that drove national media panic for weeks. It also took a story by Alachua Chronicle to expose that FDOH was not requiring the reporting of negative tests, which meant the test positivity rates were meaningless.

The FDOH could easily provide more useful data to the public. They overwrite the file that gives the numbers of deaths by date every day (the archive is not publicly linked), so there’s no way to track the changes from one day to the next unless you keep a copy of each file. We do that at Alachua Chronicle and publish links to our spreadsheets, but people accuse us of lying because they can’t replicate our statistics without access to previous FDOH files. Also, FDOH does not provide a unique identifier in the case line data to allow comparisons between days. (The case line data has a unique “ObjectID,” which is required for good database design, but FDOH changes the ID from day to day, making it difficult to identify changes to a specific case.) The case line data also does not include important information like the date the test sample was taken, the date of hospitalization, or the date of death, which would allow easy identification of potentially false categorizations of COVID-19 deaths (e.g., more than 30 days from test to death).

There are other useful things the legislature can do, like passing a bill to limit liability for businesses, schools, churches, nursing homes, etc., similar to the bill Tennessee passed last month.

They can follow up on promises by the governor that get ignored by the bureaucracy. Governor DeSantis said he wanted to allow visitation to long-term care facilities, but between the Department of Emergency Management’s restrictive order (20-009) and facilities’ fear of liability, many facilities have yet to allow visitors. One facility announced residents are limited to one visit per week, with no more than two people (from a list of five allowed visitors) and only up to 30 minutes per visit. That’s on paper, of course, because the facility has not actually allowed visitors yet.

The legislature can also hold hearings on whether there is any evidence that masks reduce transmission of viruses in a population (spoiler alert: they don’t), rather than letting local officials arbitrarily decide to muzzle their citizens and tell them they’re not welcome if they don’t comply (like a newly-elected Miami-Dade county commissioner did, 23:23 into this video) or put them in jail for violating emergency orders.

Unlike Governor DeSantis and the unelected bureaucrats running the FDOH and the state’s emergency management system, most of the people in the legislature are up for reelection in November. We cannot let them avoid responsibility for the damage caused to our economy, our businesses, and our children’s development because of the COVID response. These legislators need to do the job they get paid to do: represent the people. As the representatives closest to the people, our state legislators should be more responsive than the governor, but that will only happen if we demand that they do their jobs and hold a legislative session to review the State’s use of emergency powers.

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