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Florida to reopen state parks as governor bashes critics

May 1, 2020 GMT
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference alongside Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert, the Adjutant General of the Florida National Guard at Little Talbot Island State Park Friday, May 1, 2020. During the exchange with members of the media the Governor announced that next week there would be a reopening of Florida's State Parks after their closing due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference alongside Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert, the Adjutant General of the Florida National Guard at Little Talbot Island State Park Friday, May 1, 2020. During the exchange with members of the media the Governor announced that next week there would be a reopening of Florida's State Parks after their closing due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference alongside Maj. Gen. James O. Eifert, the Adjutant General of the Florida National Guard at Little Talbot Island State Park Friday, May 1, 2020. During the exchange with members of the media the Governor announced that next week there would be a reopening of Florida's State Parks after their closing due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

Florida will begin opening state parks on Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Friday as he encouraged outdoor activity and criticized the doom and gloom some predicted for the state.

DeSantis held a news conference with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, who opened up local beaches two weeks ago. The governor was clearly agitated about criticism the state has received from non-Floridians about Curry’s decision, and he said opening parks will be good for people’s health.

“There was a lot of people, not from Florida, but from between (Washington) D.C. and New York, who thought that this was like the most significant thing that has ever happened, that the sky was going to fall. They did misleading pictures, acting like it was Lollapalooza on the beach,” DeSantis said. “This is what they were focused on. Not dirty subway cars, not other things that have been major transmitters of this disease ... and people here were mocked.”

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The Republican governor is correct that Florida was mocked. When Curry reopened the beaches, the hashtag #floridamorons began trending on Twitter.

DeSantis stood in front of a kayak and a bicycle while making his announcement, and he downplayed the risk of the virus, saying that exercise makes people healthier, and healthier people are less at risk from dying from the disease.

“Obviously, if you pack in a thousand people and they’re right next to each other and they cough on each other, that’s going to be risky, but when you’re talking about open spaces with appropriate social distancing, that is a very low risk environment. It’s also high reward for the people of Florida,” DeSantis said. “People can go out, they can get sunlight, they can get fresh air. It’s good for peace of mind.”

But he also emphasized social distancing guidelines and said people shouldn’t gather in groups of more than 10.

Eric Edwards, 44, of Orlando, went for a jog on an empty beach in New Smyrna last week and thinks it’s safe. But he worries about reopening other things like gyms and tattoo parlors too quickly.

“I’d rather do things slowly and right the first time,” he said. ”I’m fine with some parks and tennis courts being open. I’m even OK with beaches being open only for exercise.”

Florida has had nearly 35,000 confirmed cases of the virus, resulting in more than 1,300 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. Of those, the Jacksonville area has had about 1,000 cases and 22 deaths. DeSantis noted, though, that there hasn’t been a spike in cases after Jacksonville reopened beaches.

“Has there been some type of major outbreak? No! In fact, cases have declined. They weren’t that high to begin with, but two weeks ago, the county reported 29 new cases,” DeSantis said. “Out of a county of a million people, that’s extremely low. That’s like lunchtime in Queens.”

On the day Duval beaches reopened, there were 29 new cases in the county. That compares to four new cases last Sunday, and 17 new cases on Thursday. DeSantis said that was a sign that reopening beaches wasn’t spreading the disease.

The governor announced earlier in the week that he was lifting restrictions on restaurants and stores, allowing them to reopen at 25% capacity on Monday.

Later Friday, the governor traveled to Pensacola, where he said the state plans to increase testing for the virus and for people who have developed antibodies for the disease. He said Florida’s capacity to test exceeds current demand and he encouraged anyone who wants to be tested to do so.

DeSantis said the state plans to do mobile testing with a recreational vehicle it just acquired.

“We want to drive that around the state of Florida,” he said. “We’ll drive that to where the important points are.”

The state also began naming nursing homes and assisted living facilities where deaths have occurred. Three facilities topped the list with 13 resident deaths. Each also had one staff member succumb to the disease. They were in Suwannee, Pinellas and Manatee counties.

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Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report