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DeSantis Points to Farm Workers As Florida's COVID-19 Numbers Spike

C.M. Guerrero
Miami Herald
At a recent press conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said farmworkers living and work conditions played a role in the state's COVID-19 numbers spike.

Florida's positive COVID-19 cases continue to spike, and at a press conference in Tallahassee on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis listed some reasons — like more testing of inmates — of employees and residents of long-term care facilities and also asymptomatic employees at their workplaces.


He also cited other groups leading to more positive tests. Farm and construction workers, whom are "overwhelmingly Hispanic workers and day laborers."

"Some of these guys, they go to work in a school bus, and they're all just like packed there like sardines going across like Palm Beach County or some of these other places and all of these opportunities to have transmission," he continued.

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The fact that farmworkers live — many crammed in a trailer — ride to work together in large groups, and pick tomatoes in proximity would naturally spread the new coronavirus, said Nely Rodriguez, an organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

That's why, she said, her group tried to get help for their community at the start of the contagion, so that the virus wouldn't spread as badly as it did. Immokalee is in Collier County, about a 50-minute drive from Naples.

"The resources came too late," Rodriguez said, in an interview with WLRN. "Yes, we're at the highest point now of the coronavirus's spread."

Rodriguez said agriculture workers are considered essential workers that had to keep doing their job "to ensure, precisely, that there wouldn't be a food shortage crisis. They did this work while other people, like those who work in offices or in government, are at home, in comfort, avoiding the virus while the agriculture workers kept working to make sure there would be enough to feed the whole country."

Two months ago, the coalition began a petition with roughly 43,250 signatures asking federal, state and local officials for a field hospital-type facility for treatment and a space for isolation, to require employers to provide personal protective gear and funds so workers who get an infection can take time off to recover from COVID-19.

In May, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) came to Immokalee to help with testing and education on the disease. According to the website of the international medical humanitarian organization, it found out about the situation there by CIW. "At the end of April, MSF sent a team to Immokalee to assess the situation and quickly realized that health education and testing activities needed to be ramped up immediately."

Franco Ripple, the communications director at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said, in an emailed statement, that the governor's comments on the agriculture community are mistaken.

"There is evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in areas where farms are located, but the vast majority of farmworkers left agricultural communities several weeks ago, as harvests have ended," he wrote. "As the Governor continues to prematurely reopen Florida, we're seeing increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and positivity in recent weeks, including the state's highest-ever single-day number of cases this week."

"Many areas where cases are spiking are in non-agricultural counties, such as Broward, Duval and Hillsborough, which have seen their highest positive case days in over a month."

In the email, Ripple wrote that the Florida Department of Agriculture "doesn't have authority to regulate working conditions on farms or transportation of farmworkers, or require testing. Commissioner Fried recommended that the governor work with her to ensure that PPE, healthcare, and COVID-19 testing for farmworkers be provided, but has not received any response."

In a statement to WLRN, the Florida Department of Health disagreed.  "As part of our high-volume surveillance testing strategy, the Department of Health has been proactively going into high-risk environments where COVID-19 can spread rapidly, which includes agriculture communities where workers are in close confines and living conditions," it wrote. "Over the past several months, the Department of Health, in conjunction with state and local leaders, has worked with the medical community, federally-qualified health centers, faith-based organizations and local hospital systems to ensure farm workers have access to testing. DOH is actively engaged with farming communities and migrant camps to strengthen and foster relationships by distributing cloth face coverings and COVID-19 testing opportunities."

Though most workers have moved north to work in farms in states like Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia, they often return to Florida by the start of the school year.