Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series in an interview with Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez.
On May 4, a slow and methodical reopening of Florida commenced following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ phase one plan announced on April 29. Restaurants and local businesses flipped their signs to ‘open,’ while elective surgeries at hospitals were given the green light.
On May 1, the Weekly had the chance to speak with Nuñez via phone to discuss the reopening process, the state’s handling of the coronavirus, the challenges the state’s had to confront as a result of pandemic and how the Keys have fared locally since its first reported case on March 20.
To date, Monroe County has had 80 COVID-19 cases. It’s been a delicate situation locally with the island chain’s close proximity to what’s been the hot spot in Florida — the southeast region of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. They account for more than half the cases statewide.
On March 22, the county closed its doors to visitors in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus. And days later, a checkpoint was established at two spots in Key Largo to keep nonresidents away for the time being. Locally, officials have been busy enforcing statewide orders on vacation rentals and local measures such as screenings at the airports.
Nuñez, who’s a Keys homeowner, said Monroe County has fared “extraordinarily well” when examining the total number of hospitalizations since the pandemic hit, 11, and deaths, three.
“Any death is tragic, and one death is one too many,” she said. “In the grand scheme, obviously, Monroe has been able to keep this very contained. Those measures I would suspect have contributed to the low case rate.”
As things start to settle and restrictions are slowly lifted, Nuñez says Monroe will have to get to a point where “they’re going to have to find that happy medium” in opening up the Keys while keeping the people safe.
“You want to make sure to contain the cases on a continuing basis, but at some point your residents are really going to want the economy up and running again, and businesses are going to be at that tipping point where they may have to close for good,” she said. “And I think that would do irreparable damage to Keys residents. So it’s a trial-and-error, it’s a tread cautiously approach, but I think that’s reflected in the governor’s plan. And I think he would encourage leadership of Monroe County to also take a little bit of trial and error, a baby step as he calls it.”
In terms of testing, the state of Florida has completed more than 450,000 to date. While the state remains near the top in that category, the expansion of widespread testing continues with new walk-up and drive-through sites. They’re also adding a mobile lab to its repertoire that’ll travel to different regions of the state to conduct rapid testing at nursing homes and health care settings.
At the outset, Nuñez said testing restrictions were onerous and dictated by the CDC, especially the federally-supported test sites.
“You could only get tested if you had been to China or had symptoms and were over 65, or were a first responder,” she said. “It was really tight, the criteria, and they’ve been loosened. We’ve basically said for most intents and purposes, if you feel like you should get a test, then by all means we want you to be tested.”
From March 15 to May 3, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported that more than $979 million had been paid to claimants who had lost their job. In total, 735,749 claims were processed with 478,666 paid.
“That initial backlog that compounded the system, the CONNECT system, just could not process and it could not accept. It was constantly crashing,” Nuñez said. “Fast forward two weeks, we were throwing every resource and every type of equipment we could at it.”
Nuñez said there were instances where people applied two — and in some cases three times — as they didn’t know whether their application made it through online. As a result, people were also filling out paper applications. Now, the state’s weeding it all out.
“In a week’s time, we were able to go from 6% of claimants who had applied and had been verified and paid to the neighborhood of 45-47%,” she said. “That’s an improvement. We know we have to continue to push because there have been people who’ve been waiting for some time. Once we get through the backlog, and now that people are going back to work at least for a majority of the counties, I think we’ll see a slowdown in new applicants, so that’ll give time to take care of the existing.”
In Monroe County, 3,936 claims were submitted related to the COVID-19 pandemic.