TALLAHASSEE — In a press conference on June 16, Gov. Ron DeSantis pointed to farmworkers as being one of the major causes of increased positive COVID-19 test results the state has seen in June.
“When you have workers like that, they’re living in really close confines,” explained Gov. DeSantis. “Sometimes multi-generational. But the real, close extended contact in those living conditions is conducive to having this spread. Some of these guys, they go to work in a school bus and they’re all just packed there like sardines going across Palm Beach County or some of these other places. There is all these opportunities to have transmission. So it’s something we are going to continue to keep an eye on.”
During the press conference, Gov. DeSantis highlighted a case of a watermelon farm in the state that had 90 workers test positive for the virus.
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Franco Ripple pushed back on some of the governor’s claims in a statement.
“The governor is mistaken regarding agriculture being a primary driver of COVID-19 in Florida,” said Mr. Ripple. “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. 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.”
Mr. Ripple went on to say that Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has recommended that the governor work with her to ensure that PPE, health care and COVID-19 testing for farmworkers be provided, but has not received any response.
When Gov. DeSantis announced his “Re-Open Florida Task Force” in April, Commissioner Fried was the lone member of his cabinet not included.
On June 10, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Labor published interim guidance for agriculture workers and employers.
Some of this guidance included grouping workers together into cohorts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 transmission by minimizing the number of different individuals coming into close contact with each other over the course of a week . The guidance also called on farm owners to develop sanitation protocols for daily cleaning and sanitation of work sites, where it is feasible to disinfect the work site, as well as cleaning and disinfecting procedures for high-touch areas such as tools, equipment and vehicles used by workers.
ON June 23, Migrant Service Providers, a coalition of over 40 organizations across South Florida, responded to the governor’s allegations, which they labeled “ inaccurate and racist scapegoating.”
Arturo Lopez, a committee member of the Migrant Service Providers, said “Blaming farmworkers and ‘Hispanics’ is a racist and xenophobic ploy that Floridians should not fall for. Instead of deflecting blame from his own office’s failures, the governor should provide more testing and adequate resources to the communities Florida has left behind.
“Farmworkers should not be used as scapegoats for Florida’s failure to contain the spread of the virus. Farmworkers are essential workers who we’ve relied on to keep food on our plates throughout the pandemic. They’ve sacrificed more than anyone; yet the governor, in his words and inaction, has treated migrant farmworker communities with a callous disregard for their safety and wellbeing.”
Victoria Mesa-Estrada, another committee member, added: “The state of Florida has denied farmworker communities access to critical testing and even denied limited-English proficient individuals with equal access to federal resources, in violation of the Civil Rights Act. “Florida must invest in its farmworker communities – not scapegoat them when it’s politically expedient to do so. Lives are at stake, and it’s time our governor acted like it.”
To address these issues, the committee proposed that the governor, the commissioner and other elected officials reinstate the Governor’s Advisory Council on Farmworker Affairs. In 1987, Governor Bob Graham had recognized that growers and farmworkers were one of the same and created the council to expediently address problems in the industry. The council was comprised of growers, farmworker organizations, farmworker representatives, and elected officials – an arrangement the committee says would be valuable to have now amid the pandemic.
The coalition of organizations also pointed out that given the large agriculture business in the state, farmworkers should be receiving much greater attention and more public health resources. Ironically, they noted, Governor DeSantis’s attacks came at a time when most fields are empty, as harvests outside of the citrus industry ended in late April.