Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he would seek a “bill of rights” for college students following crackdowns on parties and other social gatherings that some blame for a surge in COVID-19 cases on campuses around the country.
“I understand that universities are trying to do the right thing,” DeSantis said during a news briefing at the Capitol, “but I personally think it’s dramatically draconian that a student could get potentially expelled for going to a party. That’s what college kids do.”
The Republican governor also said he would move to block local governments from closing restaurants again, saying there’s little evidence such closures have slowed the spread of the coronavirus.
WINK News visited Florida Gulf Coast University on Thursday after the university said some individual students are on disciplinary probation because of misconduct during the pandemic. That’s on top of the suspension of two fraternities and a sorority in trouble too at the university.
But several students we spoke to said they understand the precautions to keep everyone safe, even if it means strict rules.
Decisions have consequences. That’s FGCU president Mike Martin’s message to students who are not following rules aimed at keeping campus healthy.
“COVID is something that we need to prioritize as a whole,” FGCU junior Daniel Litman said. “People aren’t really taking it seriously as they should be.”
Martin sent an email saying Sigma Chi and Phi Delta Theta fraternities are suspended for the rest of the semester after being accused of throwing large parties with no masks or social distancing in August.
“I was a little bit surprised to hear that there was still some partying going on despite the pretty clear guidelines that were given by our president here,” said junior Joseph Ramage.
FGCU’s Tri Delta sorority is on interim suspension, and a small group of individual students is on probation.
Other students hope their fellow classmates learn a lesson.
“It sucks to be them, but it also sucks to be like everyone else who would have to go home if they spread it,” said junior Anna Landas.
Still, some think the punishments might be too harsh.
“I do believe that it can be a little bit unfair,” Litman said.
“A big part of college is, you know, social gatherings and stuff,” said freshman Joel Chattoo.
FGCU has reported 80 COVID-19 cases since the fall semester began. Martin said the last thing he wants to do is shut campus down, so he hopes everyone takes the rules seriously.
“Maybe for clubs and organizations but for the general goings-on, I think it’s important to maintain the social distancing,” Ramage said.
On Thursday, Florida reported 2,541 more COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to more than 693,000. The state also reported 177 more deaths, bringing the total among Florida residents to at least 13,795.
The governor’s plan to stop cities and counties from closing restaurants will have no immediate effect because most eateries have been allowed to reopen, albeit at reduced capacity, as part of the governor’s plan to revive the state economy.
The dual announcements came after a virtual roundtable the governor hosted from the Capitol. It included three experts who questioned some of the mandatory measures — including school closures and mask mandates — put in place to control the outbreak.
The experts — two from Stanford University and one from Harvard — acknowledged their views were outside the mainstream of thought within the public health community. And their views mostly aligned with those of the governor in opposing lockdowns and restrictions, particularly among young people.
Even before the roundtable ended, some Democrats assailed DeSantis for too quickly reopening the state.
“The governor’s roundtable today was little more than a collection of like-minded individuals echoing the governor’s push for herd immunity policies,” said state Sen. Lori Berman.
“Almost 14,000 deaths and almost 700,000 cases in Florida are testament to the failures of the governor in effectively combating this pandemic,” Berman said. “So, too, are the current outbreaks and hotspots in schools and on college campuses, thanks to his push to quickly reopen these facilities.”
College administrators in Florida and elsewhere have warned students to heed pandemic precautions or suffer repercussions — not just to their health but to their academic careers.
“Students who endanger the community with actions such as hosting or attending a large party or gathering will be subject to suspension,” the president of Florida State University, John Thrasher, said last week.
School-aged children and young adults now account for one in every five of Florida’s virus cases, according to state health data. But DeSantis and the experts he convened said they were not alarmed because many young people do not develop serious symptoms. Only about 1% of the state’s deaths from COVID-19 involve someone under 25.
At Florida State, about 1,400 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of August — about half of those occurring over a seven-day period ending Sept. 4. Since then, the number of new infections at the campus has declined.
DeSantis did not specify what would be included in his proposed “bill of rights” for college students.
“I just think that we’ve got to be reasonable about this and really focus the efforts on where the most significant risk is,” the governor said, adding that focus should remain on protecting the state’s most vulnerable, including older residents.
Since March, DeSantis has openly questioned the need for statewide mask mandates. But he shut down bars and nightclubs early on, and severely limited how restaurants could operate. Many of the most drastic restrictions have since been lifted.
“We can’t have these businesses dying,” DeSantis said Thursday. “So they’re not going to be able to be closed by locals anymore. And they will be able to operate at the capacity that they’re comfortable with.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.