A Mayor’s Lonely Fight Against the Coronavirus in a State Run by Republicans

Jane Castor
Mayor Jane Castor looks on during a press conference at the Florida Department of Health Tampa Branch Laboratory in Tampa, Florida, on March 2. Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times via AP

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Even as Florida’s coronavirus cases have skyrocketed, the state has been acting far too slowly. Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking delayed measures while blaming outsiders for COVID-19 transmission, and residents continue to pack still-open public spaces. [Update, April 1, 2020, at 1:38 p.m.: On Wednesday, DeSantis announced that he would sign a statewide stay-at-home order that would take effect Thursday night.] But one local leader is leading the charge to protect her constituents: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. She proposed a shelter-in-place order for her city when county officials weren’t even considering it, and she eventually managed to get it passed. Now she’s taking further steps to make sure Floridians get the testing and treatment they need, even as the federal government fails to provide adequate supplies.

I spoke with Castor on Tuesday’s episode of What Next to get a sense of what it’s like to lead her city during this crisis. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: We’re speaking Monday, March 30. What is the situation right now?

Jane Castor: On the testing front, I feel like we were woefully underprepared and have not caught up. If you look at literature from Taiwan, the government was testing 20,000 people a day. Here in Hillsborough County, we received just 900 collection kits over a week ago. We went through those in two days. We just received another thousand, and we’ll get through those in two days as well.

How frustrating is this for you as a community leader? It sounds like you would pop up a testing facility and then have to shut it down a couple days later. It must have driven you nuts, as someone whose job is to give clear information to the public.

Well, you really can’t focus on that. You just have to understand the steps that need to be taken and then focus on that. Drop your head and move forward. If you’re wasting time being frustrated, then you’re wasting time.

Are you talking to other mayors or county officials or even the governor?

I’m a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and I’m also lucky enough to be in the Bloomberg Harvard mayors’ cohort, which includes 41 mayors from around the world. We are in constant communication, so that’s very helpful.

It stands out to me that you’re mentioning this coalition of mayors that’s not coordinated by the federal government or your state government. It’s done through a completely different system. Does that stand out to you too?

Well, I don’t want to go too deep into that. But the one thing I will say is that in 31 years of law enforcement, having worked in emergency management, I have never seen this level of unpreparedness from the federal government. To a degree, everyone was sort of caught off guard by this. But the fact is there really haven’t been any attempts to catch up—after all these weeks, we still don’t have the swabs for the collection kits, and everybody’s running short on PPE. On the state level, I’m talking to other Florida mayors. We did some of these shelter-in-place orders basically at the same time.

Someone you’re not mentioning here is your governor, Ron DeSantis. You’ve said that you wish your shelter-in-place order had been a statewide order, that you wish you didn’t have to say it as mayor. I’m wondering if you’re noticing any partisan differences in terms of how leaders are responding to the pandemic.

I don’t feel that it’s being approached in a partisan manner. We’re probably ahead of the curve in terms of disaster response because we deal with hurricanes on a regular basis. Granted, it’s the first time this governor’s been through it. What a hell of a test this is.

I think the state is working as hard as it can to get the supplies out when it receives them. It’s just that there are 50 other states all vying for the same supplies.

When you look at what’s happening in New York or Seattle, what are you most trying to prevent happening in Tampa?

The virus spreading to those individuals who can least afford to have it: those who have comorbidities and the elderly. The information that’s coming from the health care community and from the scientists says there are many people who’ve already had this and gotten over it. I think that’s the data we need to focus on right now, because there is so little ability to test. That’s not a lost cause. We need to continue to do that. I also think looking at antibody treatments will be a focus in the next couple weeks.

I’m on the phone with the heads of our local hospitals on a regular basis. I’m very worried about a surge—I have no doubt that that’s coming. And I’m trying to be realistic. I’m not painting any kind of a rosy landscape for my city. This is real. People are going to die. We have to deal with this and not try to bury our heads in the sand.

With the lack of testing, how are you trying to get as much information from your city as you can?

At the University of South Florida, some of the students and researchers in the infectious disease area are putting together a dashboard of the information we need. They’re collecting the ages and the geographic locations of all the people who call in to try to get a test. We can then look and measure where the positive tests are coming from, and where the hot spots are.

That really stands out to me, because what you’re saying is your own individual municipality is taking on this big data crunching thing. Normally, that wouldn’t be on the city of Tampa to do.

It’s really every man for himself in this coronavirus. This is not a normal situation. It’s new territory, uncharted waters for everybody nationwide. So we’re trying to hit it from as many angles as we possibly can. The data and analysis angle is something that I have seen be very successful in the past. I think it’ll be successful here as well. We just have to make sure we’re getting the right data.

You’re saying it’s every man for himself, which strikes me as true. But there has to be a collective solution. Right?

Right. But sometimes it’s hard to get individuals to listen. If you can show them the actionable data, then they may listen.

The situation changes every single day. When I first proposed a stay-at-home order, the emergency policy group wouldn’t even vote to discuss it. Days later, we were voting on it for the entire county.

That’s fast.

It’s fast, yeah. But that’s what I told everyone: They said slow down, and I said no, you need to keep up. Everyone needs to understand the severity of this: the speed with which it spreads and the need for action now, not tomorrow.

How have you been coping in the time of the coronavirus? Call the What Next team and tell us about it. Our number is 202-888-2588. Or you can tweet at me @marysdesk.

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