TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (News Service of Florida) — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried asserted Thursday the governor and state Cabinet members should have been jointly coordinating the response to the coronavirus pandemic, as a new report showed another 173,731 first-time unemployment claims were filed last week in Florida.
Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said at the end of a Cabinet meeting that Gov. Ron DeSantis, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody should have met more than once since Feb. 4.
“In the most critical nearly four months of this pandemic, this Cabinet has been left in the dark,” Fried argued.
DeSantis didn’t reply to Fried during the teleconference meeting, but Patronis jumped in to defend the governor, who has spearheaded the state’s coronavirus-related efforts. Patronis compared favorably the state’s response to the pandemic to the actions of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and highlighted a task force created by DeSantis to help reopen the economy.
“We will persevere, but we will be stronger and at the same time making sure that we're looking out for the state's finances and our taxpayer dollars,” Patronis said. “So, look, you (DeSantis) have my support. I appreciate everything you've done to see us through these turbulent waters.”
Moody, also pointing to the task force that provided recommendations that DeSantis loosely followed, added that her office has been “in constant communications with the relevant agencies. They've been amazingly responsive.”
The task force, dominated by elected officials and leaders of lobbying groups and large businesses, included Patronis and Moody --- but not Fried.
The teleconference Thursday, which dealt with a wide range of issues such as buying conservation land, was the first time DeSantis and the Cabinet have met since Feb. 4.
Fried had unsuccessfully requested DeSantis schedule updates for the Cabinet from state agencies, as the virus has killed more than 2,300 people, tax revenues have plummeted, the unemployment rate has soared and people have been frustrated in trying to get unemployment benefits.
“These agenda requests are made in good faith and were not acknowledged, let alone fulfilled,” Fried said. “That's a real shame for everyone who deserves the truth. Floridians expect our government to be united, especially during this time of unprecedented challenges to the state that we all love.”
Fried, who has increasingly locked horns with DeSantis during the pandemic, appeared in the Cabinet meeting room for Thursday’s meeting, while the other three statewide officials participated remotely. The governor’s office said Wednesday the meeting would be held by phone because of health and safety concerns.
The meeting came as the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday unemployment applications have surpassed 40 million nationwide since the pandemic put the brakes on the economy in mid-March.
Nationally, 2.1 million new claims were filed last week, down from 2.44 million the prior week.
For Florida, the 173,731 in new claims was a decrease from 225,404 the prior week. The state Department of Economic Opportunity on Friday announced a 12.9 percent state unemployment rate in April, representing 1.218 million Floridians qualifying as unemployed.
Meanwhile, the state’s workforce has dropped by 893,000 people, from about 10.3 million in March to 9.4 million in April.
Fried said many Floridians have given up trying to get benefits because of problems with the unemployment system.
“They don’t have four to six hours every single day to go onto the unemployment system, to be waiting online, to be talking to call center employees who are frustrated because they too don’t have the right answers to give, and they are frustrated,” Fried said after the meeting.
DeSantis has upped the pace of reopening businesses statewide since restaurants and retailers were first allowed to operate with 25 percent indoor occupancy on May 4.
“I couldn't believe the response I got from Northwest Florida when you (DeSantis) opened,” said Patronis, whose family has long owned a restaurant in Panama City. “I never heard the sigh of relief of people feeling to get back normal. And then what we saw, we saw people come back to work wearing masks, taking extra precautions to be able to get back to work because of the environment that we're in.”
DeSantis has expanded the allowed occupancy in restaurants to 50 percent, has invited professional sports teams to train and play in empty stadiums and called for youth activities to resume. Meanwhile, Universal Orlando has gotten local approval to reopen with limited attendance in June, while Walt Disney World is planning to let guests back in with reservations in July.
From March 15 to Tuesday, the state Department of Economic Opportunity reported receiving nearly 2.18 million unemployment claims, of which more than 1.73 million were considered “unique.” The difference is due to duplicates or incomplete paperwork, according to the state.
Of the unique claims, more than 1.6 million had been processed as of Tuesday, with 941,338 eligible for state assistance and 129,358 eligible for federal benefits. Another 403,712 had been ruled ineligible. The state administers the federal benefits.
On Thursday, state Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, called on U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia to oversee the distribution of federal benefits because of problems at the state level.
“In just a few days, rent and mortgages are due and we still have constituents who have not received any federal unemployment benefits,” said Good, who is running for Congress. “Twice now, I have asked the U.S. Secretary of Labor to intervene and provide oversight since the state does not seem to have mechanisms or systems in place to appropriately disperse the money.”
The Department of Economic Opportunity has paid out $3.5 billion in benefits, of which $955 million was from the state.
--- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.