Florida at center of virus outbreak and battle over school reopening

© Agence France-Presse

Florida has become the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States

Washington (AFP) - Florida is the new epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States and is shaping up as a key battleground in a partisan-tinged fight playing out nationally over reopening schools in the fall.

While cities such as Houston, Los Angeles and New York plan to begin the school year virtually or on a restricted basis, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is insisting schools reopen fully in August.

The Republican governor's demand mirrors that of President Donald Trump, who is facing a tough reelection battle in November and is pushing for schools to reopen as a sign of a return to normalcy.

Trump, who is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in polling, has even threatened to cut federal funding for those schools that refuse to open their doors.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll published Thursday found that 63 percent of Americans said Trump should not be pressuring schools to reopen, while 25 percent agreed with his push.

Ninety-five percent of the Democrats and 58 percent of the Republicans surveyed agreed that reopening schools should take a back seat to public health.

Trump and DeSantis have only so much leverage, however, in a fight that has them butting heads with teachers' unions, medical experts and many parents wary of sending their children back to school in safety.

State and local officials have the final say when it comes to their school districts. 

The Houston school district, which has more than 200,000 students, plans to begin the school year virtually on September 8 and start in-person classes on October 19 "subject to change based on COVID-19 conditions."

Once in-person classes resume, "parents will have the option to opt out of face-to-face instruction entirely for the fall semester and school year," it said.

The Los Angeles school district, with 700,000 students, said classes will be online-only until further notice.

In New York City, which has the nation's largest public school system with 1.1 million students, Mayor Bill de Blasio said classroom attendance would be limited to one to three days a week.

Other major cities, including Chicago and Washington, have kept parents on tenterhooks and not yet announced plans for the fall semester.

'Less risk'

DeSantis, making his argument for reopening schools, has pointed to the lower risk for children of contracting COVID-19.

"I am really amazed at the extent to which people under 18 are low-risk for this," he said. "Fortunately, our schoolchildren are at less risk."

Only around five percent of identified COVID-19 cases are children, and 90 percent of them develop no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

DeSantis's push to reopen schools comes as Florida emerges as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

The southern state reported a record 156 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday and nearly 14,000 new infections.

The total number of virus cases in the "Sunshine State" has now surpassed 315,000, and there have been 4,782 deaths, according to Florida Department of Health figures.

Florida is now reporting more COVID-19 cases daily than any other state in the country. California and Texas are next with about 10,000 new cases a day each.

But DeSantis has not followed the lead of California and Texas by, for example, imposing new lockdown orders or making the wearing of masks mandatory in indoor spaces.

COVID-19 cases have been surging in the United States, particularly in states that were among the first to reopen and lift restrictions designed to halt the spread of the highly contagious virus.

The number of virus cases in the United States has topped 3.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, and there have been 138,201 deaths, both figures the highest in the world.

Meanwhile masks continued to be a divisive partisan issue in the US: Colorado mandated they be worn in indoor public spaces, but Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, was sued by her own Republican governor Brian Kemp for ordering masks in her city.

"A better use of tax payer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing," she tweeted Thursday.