Governor DeSantis on farmworkers: “You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public”…

Faced with skyrocketing infection rates and questions regarding his decision to re-open the state despite alarming data trends, Florida Governor DeSantis chooses division over compassion, scapegoating over science…

Governor blames “overwhelmingly Hispanic” farmworkers, and crowded living and working conditions beyond their control, for sharp rise in new COVID-19 cases, rather than ask if his own actions — and inaction — might have contributed to the dramatic increase in suffering and death among farmworkers in his state;  

CIW’s Silvia Perez: “Our community is very small so when a worker loses their life, the community notices and comes together to raise money to help send the worker back to their home country,” she said. “When you hear those comments, it’s like … why does he not value us?”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, leader of a state hard hit by the novel coronavirus, makes it a practice to read the eulogies of three victims of COVID-19 as part of his regular press conferences on the pandemic.  Black, white, Latino, people of every race, background, and occupation are paid this simple, but moving, respect by the state’s chief executive as a way to underscore the horrible human cost of the deadly virus.  His inclusive tributes are a poignant reminder that the loss of one person to this pandemic diminishes us all, and that our best hope in the fight against this existential threat is to remain firmly united.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, on the other hand, takes a decidedly different approach to the reckoning required of him as the leader of a state quickly becoming the new national epicenter of the pandemic.  His public statements over the past week reveal a far less compassionate, more divisive strategy for addressing the growing crisis in the Sunshine State.

When asked during a recent press conference whether his decision to precipitously re-open the state might have contributed to the sharp rise of new COVID-19 cases in Florida — where this past week saw one record high after another — Governor DeSantis decided to point the finger instead at some of his poorest and least powerful constituents:

“I think the No. 1 outbreak we’ve seen is in the agriculture communities,” he said. “There was just a big case dump in North Central Florida there was a watermelon farm. You’ve had farm communities in Collier, Palm Beach, Martin, Levy, Hendry, and what happens is these are workers that are working close together once one gets it, it tends to spread very rapidly throughout those areas.”

What he said next cast a stark light on the mindset governing decision-making in Tallahassee since the first days of the pandemic, and revealed perhaps the real reason behind the current spike in cases in Immokalee and other farmworker communities:

“You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak,” Mr. DeSantis said last week, infuriating longtime community activists who say the answer is not to isolate an already overlooked population but rather to help improve its working and housing conditions.

Finally, Governor DeSantis took the opportunity during a subsequent press conference to underscore the ethnicity of the people he was choosing to single out as the principal cause of the sharp rise in new cases, declaring, apropos of nothing:

“They’re also looking at construction workers and other types of day laborers, they’re finding these are overwhelmingly Hispanic workers and day laborers, but they were in Northwest Florida (where they) found a couple cases,” he said.

Thus has the governor of Florida decided to approach the fact that the daily count of new cases in his state has skyrocketed since re-opening at the end of May, as seen in this graph from the New York Times:

And the spike continues to sharpen.  On Friday, the number of new COVID-19 cases peaked at more than 3,600.  On Saturday it broke 4,000 for the first time.  

Despite what many political observers are now calling his premature decision to re-open the state — and despite what virtually all medical observers decry as a totally inadequate effort to provide contact tracing and isolation resources to communities fighting the deadly virus — the most powerful man in Florida has chosen to blame the state’s least powerful residents for the surge in new COVID-19 cases.  And — though absolutely no one asked — he has drawn a sharp dividing line between those workers and what he calls “the general population,” even going as far as to highlight the ethnicity of the farmworkers and other low-wage workers whom he has chosen to scapegoat.

CIW staff members and former farmworkers Lupe Gonzalo (left) and Silvia Perez.

Meanwhile, human beings in Immokalee and other farmworker communities around the state of Florida — essential workers given no choice but to continue working for the past several months so that the rest of the state’s residents, sheltered safely at home, could have food on their tables — continue to grow gravely ill and die.  

That’s why, when asked for her thoughts on Governor DeSantis’ comments, Silvia Perez of the CIW (pictured here on the right in 2015, speaking with Walmart representatives, Florida tomato growers, and the Chairwoman of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights at the ceremony marking Walmart’s decision to join the Fair Food Program), could only shake her head and observe:

“Our community is very small so when a worker loses their life, the community notices and comes together to raise money to help send the worker back to their home country,” she said. “When you hear those comments, it’s like … why does he not value us?”

That is a question that we can only hope reporters pose to Governor DeSantis at his next press conference, and don’t stop asking until he gives a meaningful answer.  He may choose not to recognize the victims of the COVID-19 on his watch as does his counterpart in New Jersey, but he cannot be allowed to dismiss their humanity altogether, or the state and local officials under his direction will be likely to do so, as well, and the results will be devastating.  

What are the real reasons for Florida’s skyrocketing infection rates?

Let’s begin with the mindset revealed in Governor DeSantis’ statement about not wanting farmworkers “mixing with the general public.”

It should go without saying, but, for the record… farmworkers are part of – not apart from – the “general public” in Florida.  Farmworkers living and working in Florida are Floridians, just as attorneys, grocery store clerks, musicians, librarians, doctors and nurses, school teachers, mechanics, bakers, and candlestick makers living in Florida are Floridians.  Farmworker is an occupation, not a caste.  And, like it or not, you can’t un-mix them. Farmworkers shop at the same stores, go to the same movie theaters, eat at the same restaurants, and play at the same parks and beaches as millions of other Floridians.  

But, if Governor DeSantis and other decision-makers in his administration perceive farmworkers as being distinct from the Floridians they considers their proper constituents, that could go a long way to explaining why the state has been so slow and ineffectual in responding to the extraordinarily high risk posed by the novel coronavirus in farmworker communities like Immokalee.

Testing delayed is protection denied…

Consider this timeline:

  • On April 1, the CIW sent a private letter directly to the office of Gov. DeSantis as well as state, local, and federal officials sounding the alarm about the vulnerabilities of farmworkers in the face of the unfolding pandemic.
  • On April 3, the CIW published an op/ed in the New York Times that read, in part, “[I]if something isn’t done—now—to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days.”
  • That same week, we launched a petition calling on Governor DeSantis “to immediately take all the possible steps, along with the local and federal government, to protect farmworkers in Immokalee from the COVID-19 pandemic,” including an immediate start to community-wide testing.  By the end of the month, more than 25,000 people around the country had signed the petition.
  • On April 18th, our call for urgent intervention on the part of the governor reached millions through a live interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN, which was followed by dozens of stories in local and national media outlets, including the CBS Evening News, the Washington Post, and NPR.
  • On April 23rd, we joined nearly 50 other farmworker and community organizations in calling on Governor DeSantis to take immediate steps to address the clear and present danger facing Florida’s farmworkers.  
  • And by April 24th, over 230 organizations had signed an open letter to the Governor supporting CIW’s petition, including the Council of Florida Medical School Deans and the Florida Public Health Association, warning Gov. DeSantis that “unless [these measures are] done, Immokalee will almost certainly become an epicenter of contagion.”

It wasn’t until May 3rd – a full month after the urgent New York Times op/ed that launched the campaign – that testing started in Immokalee.  And even then it was only a three-day burst of testing, not the steady, committed, accessible process necessary to get a true measure of the virus’ grip on the community.  That level of testing wouldn’t start until May 31st, after another long delay.  By that time, the virus had established a firm foothold in town, and was off to the races, as this graph from June 6th reflects:

On June 12th, Doctor Antonino Gonzalez, one of only a handful of doctors who practice in Immokalee, told the local Fox News affiliate,“If people don’t take this seriously, we’re going to have a lot of dead people in here.”

And today, the picture has only grown more desperate.  According to the Naples Daily News:

There is no slowdown to the escalating cases in Immokalee, which stood at a cumulative of 1,207 cases Thursday, more than double the 488 cases reported three weeks ago, according to state data.

“It’s a huge spike of active cases,” Leiner [of Global Response Management, an international relief organization launching anti-COVID efforts in Immokalee] said. “It has the potential to be catastrophic.”

There are simply no two ways about it: State and county health authorities dragged their feet on testing in Immokalee, and the delay allowed the virus to spread virtually unencumbered through the vulnerable farmworker community for nearly two months.  

Meanwhile, free drive-up testing began in the coastal cities of Ft. Myers and Naples weeks earlier than in Immokalee, and the results from the disparate treatment of the communities – what one might call the “general public” on the coasts and the inland farmworker communities – was entirely predictable.  From the Washington Post:

As of June 10, the Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control and Health Protection reported 899 positive cases in the Immokalee Zip code, out of roughly 2,500 tests conducted in the rural town. That is a 36 percent positive rate, far higher than the current 5.58 percent positive rate for those tested in Florida overall, and much higher than wealthier areas of Collier County.

On the other side of the county, in Naples’ 34102 Zip code, the 15th wealthiest Zip code in the country with a population of 15,544, there have been only 76 cases of covid-19.

But not only were public health authorities too slow to begin testing in Immokalee, their efforts at contact tracing and social isolation – the critical other 2/3 of the epidemiological trinity – have been equally dilatory.  

Ineffective, inaccessible contact tracing, isolation shelters…

Testing is only as effective at containing the spread of a deadly virus in a community as the isolation and contact tracing that follow it.

Testing is designed with two purposes in mind: 1) to help the individual tested to know that he or she is sick and needs to self-isolate to not transmit the virus, and 2) to help public health officials to know who has the virus and therefore reach out to those who are most likely to contract it next as his or her contacts, to curb its spread.  

That means testing is only an indicator, raw information, like a light on a stove top telling you the burner is hot.  What you do next – stay clear of the danger, turn the burner off – is what determines whether you get burned or remain unharmed.  Testing is inert data to inform action, not an action in and of itself.  The all-important actions to protect public health are contact tracing and self-isolation.

While the story of testing in Immokalee may have been one of “too little, too late”, we can report that, as of today, steady, community-wide testing is finally in place here and people throughout the community, shaken by the wildfire spread of the virus through town, are taking advantage of the opportunity to learn their individual status, symptomatic and non-symptomatic alike.  But the same cannot be said when it comes to contact tracing and self-isolation.  Collier County Commissioner Bill McDaniel, whose district includes Immokalee, spoke with the Naples Daily News at the end of May on contact tracing efforts in Immokalee:

McDaniel cautioned the health department doesn’t have adequate staffing for contact tracing and is still training workers to do it. 

“It won’t be staffed up until the first of June,” he said. “I think the health department is doing the best they can with what they have to work with.”

The experience in the farmworker community reflected Commissioner McDaniel’s concern.  From The Washington Post:

Oscar Otzoy, a former farmworker who is now an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, says testing agencies aren’t asking contact-tracing questions or telling workers how or how long to self-isolate, when they call to deliver the results of positive tests.

“After that clinic took place in May and people received the calls with positive results, they were told to just stay home,” Otzoy said through a translator. “In terms of what growers have been offering workers, there hasn’t been a whole lot of help to those workers who tested positive. That’s something we’re starting to see as more and more people get sick, people are not being given a lot of information and are being left to fend for themselves.”

Elbin Perez, an Immokalee resident who contracted the virus in May, told the same story from personal experience to the Guardian:

Elbin Perez of Immokalee, who contracted the virus in May, poses outside his home with his wife, Yecenia Solorzano, and their two children. Photograph: Michael Adno/The Guardian

After a volatile night of sleep, Elbin Sales Pérez, 31, a farmworker and landscaper, woke to chills and a fever, a debilitating headache and a pain behind his eyes that he couldn’t gather words for. That morning, he cut west across State Road 82 for 40 miles from Immokalee to a testing site in Ft Myers. He returned home and isolated himself from his wife and two children. “It was a really horrible time for me,” he said.

As the hands of the clock spun, he called the department of health trying to discern whether his results were available, and online, he anxiously reloaded the page, hoping to receive any semblance of an answer. Six days later after a string of unanswered calls, he reached a stranger who told him that he tested positive for Covid-19. As his mind reeled, he thought, “What am I going to do next? Where am I going to go?” He thought of his kids and when he could return to work…

… Of course, Pérez informed his employer, and all his co-workers have since been tested and are awaiting results, but as he told me. “We’re still waiting.” His wife, too, was met with recorded messages and an online portal leading nowhere.

… What shocked him was that with the unprecedented technological advances in America, “There really isn’t a way to get results in a timely manner,” he said. “We need medical attention and resources here in Immokalee. This community is so important, because it’s where a lot of the fruits and vegetables that feed the country come from.”

Despite the massive spike in positive cases in Immokalee, and despite the living and working conditions here that the perfect Petri dish for high-speed transmission, state and county public health efforts at contact tracing, have been, if anything, even less timely or effective than were their efforts at testing, and public resources for self-isolation in Immokalee only came online in the past two weeks – fully three months into the pandemic – and thus far it is unclear to many residents how it could be accessed.  Local public health officials are only now working to develop a community health worker program for Immokalee, investing in public health educators trained to reach the farmworker community with life-saving information about how to prevent catching, and spreading, the virus, for the first time since the pandemic began.


Where do we go from here?…

Several months ago, a serial murderer who had ravaged communities around the country and around the globe announced that he would be bringing his bloody craft to Immokalee.  True to his word, he arrived in March, and since then he has been on the loose, devastating the community virtually unencumbered.  Despite the desperate pleas of the people for help, the police stood by and watched for nearly two months.  Only in the past month have the forces charged with protecting the community of Immokalee managed to start a real body count.  And only in the past weeks have they put any real troops in the streets to confront the killer, though thus far even those efforts have been halting and half-hearted.

Farmworkers in immokalee wait abroad a crowded bus in the early morning to leave for the fields.

We can only speculate as to why the response by state and local political leaders and public health officials to the novel coronavirus in Immokalee has been so maddeningly slow, and passive, though the governor’s recent comments on farmworkers may shed some light on the mindset behind the sluggish efforts to protect our state’s essential agricultural workers.   

But the fact of that failure to act — and, once efforts were finally set into motion, to act effectively — is beyond dispute. And the failure of our public officials in the face of this deadly virus is measured, every day more, in the unnecessary suffering and death of people – mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, Brunacia Coblas, Paulino Salinas Cortez, and many more – here in Immokalee, and in farmworker communities around the state.  

What is done – or better said, was not done – is done.  We can’t change that now.  What we do next, however, is up to us. 

The final story of the COVID-19 pandemic in Immokalee remains to be written.  Most observers say that we have yet to see the end of the first wave of contagion, and that the fall will bring a second wave quite possibly every bit as devastating.  The fall will also bring the return to Immokalee of farmworkers from the summer season up north, swelling the town’s population again and filling its overcrowded housing and buses with essential workers tasked with keeping fresh fruits and vegetables on our tables.  

We simply can’t afford to make the same mistake twice.  Our state’s political leaders and public health officials are on notice.  This spring, they had an opportunity to step up and protect farmworkers and other low-wage workers in Florida, and they failed.  We are seeing the results of that failure now.

This fall, they will be presented with a second chance to get it right.  We can only hope that they will use the coming summer months wisely, mobilizing immediately to respond to the present crisis and, in the process, putting the testing, contact tracing, and isolation resources in place now for the crush all too likely to come again in the fall.