Poor funding for public services leaves Florida unprepared for COVID-19

America is now facing the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak head-on, and Florida is no exception. The number of confirmed cases in the Sunshine State crested 1,000 on Sunday, adding to a total of over 30,000 in the U.S. overall. 

The pandemic has also sent shock waves through the global economy, putting stock markets into a spiral as officials seek to slow the spread of the virus through travel restrictions and limits on public gatherings. 

One major result could be massive job losses. A March 19 forecast by Goldman Sachs estimated that an unprecedented 2.5 million people in the U.S. will apply for unemployment benefits in the coming weeks.

Amidst this massive crisis, however, Floridians are likely to be left swinging in the wind, both because of a meager public health system and threadbare unemployment benefits.

A March 10 report by the Tampa Bay Times revealed that state and county health agencies have faced multiple cuts in funding and staff. The Florida Department of Health has shed more than a quarter of its employees in the past decade, and state funding for county health agencies has fallen by $140 million from 2010 to 2019.

Instead of moving forward on pandemic preparedness, Florida has largely slid back, potentially leaving the state without the capacity it needs to test and treat residents facing COVID-19. 

Changes to state unemployment benefits, largely organized under former Gov. Rick Scott, have been even more extreme. 

The Orlando Sentinel reported March 20 that eligible Floridians can only receive up to $275 per week for 12 weeks, some of the shortest and lowest-paying benefits out of any state in the country. Prior to the Scott administration, Floridians could get unemployment for more than double the time at 26 weeks.

When it comes to who’s to blame for these cuts, the Sentinel doesn’t mince words: it’s big businesses. Corporate lobbying groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Florida supported Scott when he cut unemployment benefits in 2011, and continue to support policies that starve state and local agencies.

The reason why is simple. Poor funding for public services means lower taxes and bigger profits for corporations, regardless of the suffering those cuts cause.

For their part, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and leadership in the Florida Legislature have called to add additional funding and pare back eligibility requirements for unemployment assistance. Both are good choices in a vacuum, but they’re too little too late, a reactive attempt to patch over cuts that should have never happened.

Now is the time for the federal government to take a leading role. A range of officials in Congress, from conservative Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) to progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), have proposed direct cash payments to Americans to alleviate the economic burden of COVID-19. Policies like these, along with additional funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would go a long way to curb the pandemic’s effects on working people.

Leaders in Tallahassee, meanwhile, should take COVID-19 as a wake-up call. It’s easy to pretend that the state can get by without these services — up until the moment people need them most.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.