Are Migrant Farmworker Communities Driving the COVID-19 Case Spike?

Florida’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to rise. With a record high of 3,207 additional cases confirmed in a single day last week, the state’s total is now nearing 86,000 infected persons. And while the Sunshine State’s senior population (and subsequent need for nursing homes) has been blamed for spikes in the past, Governor DeSantis now has his sights set on migrant farmworkers for the root cause of the latest surge. The problem? The state’s Department of Agriculture refutes these claims — and the workers themselves are quick to point the finger back at the state for failures related to essential businesses and economic reopening.

According to Iowa State University, farmland makes up 80% of all U.S. farm assets. Florida, in particular, is home to a number of vital crops. In 2017, Florida had 47,000 commercial farms and ranches, dedicating a total of 9.45 million acres statewide to farming. And while crops like the Maqui tree (which can grow to four or five meters in height) are lauded as imported specialties known for their health benefits, Floridian crops like citrus fruit, sugarcane, tomatoes, watermelons, squash, peppers, peanuts, sweet corn, beans, and potatoes represent hugely important domestic agricultural contributions. In fact, Florida typically ranks first or second in production for many of these crops and the local agriculture contributes $120 billion to the state’s economy.

But as reliant as Florida is on farming, it’s clear that many residents aren’t willing to do the work themselves. Roughly 150,000 to 200,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers come to Florida each year. However, the state’s migrant labor camp program allows for only 34,000 workers and their families to live in housing that either meets or exceeds legal standards. And advocates across the country are saying that states aren’t doing enough to keep these workers safe. That could be a major concern not just in Florida, but in other regions — especially as workers move across the country to follow the harvests.

According to Governor Ron DeSantis, the close quarters and poor working conditions endured by migrant farmworkers throughout the state directly correlates to the recent spike in positive COVID-19 cases in Florida.

During a recent news conference, DeSantis explained:

“You have very risky working conditions, particularly in these farm camps or with some of these construction workers, you know some of these guys, they go to work in a school bus, and they’re like sardines going across like Palm Beach County or some of these other places, and you know just all these opportunities to have transmission… There was a migrant worker from Miami that went up to this watermelon farm, was positive with COVID. They figured that out. So then they tested 100 workers at the watermelon farm and 90 of them tested positive,” DeSantis said, adding he thinks they didn’t have symptoms of the virus. “So that’s a 90% positivity.”

DeSantis has pointed out that the majority of these workers are of Hispanic descent. According to U.S. Census reports, Spanish is the second most-spoken language worldwide, with 387 million speakers. But while cases within agricultural communities and in communities with large immigrant populations are increasing, both workers and other state officials are stressing that the rise in positive cases isn’t due to any fault of those working in Florida’s fields and orchards. It’s not because workers are uninformed; instead, they say, it may be due to overcrowding and wealth disparities that keep many community members from living in areas with better conditions. Further, Florida’s Department of Agriculture has refuted DeSantis’s claim, noting that many of the state’s migrant workers already relocated elsewhere for the season due to the end of the harvest.

Workers also stress that because the federal government has deemed agricultural employees essential — and the state has reportedly failed in its obligation to provide the resources farmworker advocates have asked for in order to slow the spread — the fault lies in the government’s inability to properly protect the people. DeSantis has also been accused of ignoring requests for help from a 50-group coalition that was sent back in April. When that letter — which asked for increased testing in rural areas, additional PPE for farmworkers, and more alternative housing options — was ignored, the state’s farmworkers were essentially on their own. Department of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried went on to describe the struggle of Florida’s migrant farmworkers in a 10-page report in an effort to make recommendations about state reopening. But that, too, has allegedly been overlooked.

Ultimately, some say that the state now has blood on its hands due to a lack of protection or a cohesive plan for safe and gradual reopening. And while others say that the containment of these communities makes the risk of spread relatively low, the growing number of positive cases might suggest otherwise. DeSantis has been criticized for scapegoating and for providing help that seems to be “too little, too late” in May. And while it’s unclear what the future holds for Florida’s residents, it’s obvious that improvements need to be made for a demographic that holds much of the state’s economy in its hands.

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