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Gov. Ron DeSantis Calls Possible Travel Restriction To Florida 'Absurd, Unconstitutional, Unwise & Unjust'

PORT CHARLOTTE (CBSMiami/AP) -- Florida Governor Ron DeSantis promised Thursday that his state would fight back on a reported travel restriction proposal by the Biden administration.

According to CBS4 News partner the Miami Herald, the White House is considering whether to impose domestic travel restrictions, including Florida, to target the new COVID-19 variants.

The U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, has recently exploded in Florida, where over a third of all cases in the United States have been identified.

While speaking at an event in Port Charlotte, Governor DeSantis called the idea of travel restrictions absurd, unconstitutional, unwise, and unjust.

"People have asked me and there was some type of report about potential travel restrictions on Americans and on Floridians. And I just think it's an absurd report that they would be doing that. I think it would be unconstitutional. It would be unwise and it would be unjust. And if you think about it, restricting the rights of Americans to travel freely throughout our country while allowing illegal aliens to pour across the southern border unmolested would be a ridiculous but very damaging farce."

According to the Herald, White House officials said no policy announcements are imminent, and that the Biden administration would consult with states and local governments before imposing any travel restrictions or health measures.

"No decisions have been made, but we certainly are having conversations across government," said a White House official, pointing to current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraging Americans to stay home and only travel for essential reasons.

"This is a war and we're at battle with the virus. War is messy and unpredictable, and all options are on the table," the White House official said.

While COVID-19 cases in Florida have declined in recent weeks, the U.K. variant has spread rapidly in the state during that time. It now accounts for up to 15% of new cases in Florida, according to estimates from a team of researchers modeling the variant's growth across the country — up from about 1% at the beginning of January.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has kept Florida's economy open even as the virus and its variants spread. Early on in the pandemic, he issued an executive order requiring travelers from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey to isolate for 14 days. He rescinded the order in August.

DeSantis said Thursday if travel restrictions were imposed, "It would purely be a political attack against the people of Florida."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wrote a letter to Biden as well saying that travel restrictions on the state would be "reckless and economically harmful."

"Instituting a travel ban, or any restriction of movement between the states, would be an outrageous, authoritarian move that has no basis in law or science," Rubio wrote.

William Lee, a co-author of a study that modeled B.1.1.7′s introduction and spread in the United States, said he expects the prevalence to double every week to 10 days in Florida. His team of researchers will be watching closely to see if the genetic information indicates that outbreaks of the U.K. variant in other states were sparked by travelers returning from Florida vacations.

Walensky last week said the B.1.1.7 variant now appears to account for 1% to 4% of new cases nationally but its presence is lopsided in certain areas, without specifying those locations.

"We do not believe the variants are distributed equally across the country at this time," she said.

Major U.S. airlines have increased flights to Florida in recent weeks as signs have emerged that the market for leisure travel is rebounding, while business travel continues to lag.

Whether travel restrictions will be effective as an intervention is unclear and implementing them now could amount to "closing the barn door once the horse is out," said Robert Bednarczyk, a public health expert and assistant professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health.

He noted that the B.1.1.7 variant has already spread to 34 states, even if it is more concentrated in places like Florida and California.

"With only a small fraction of samples tested for specific mutations, this is likely underestimating the amount of spread," Bednarczyk said. "In addition to what we've been asking of the population — masks, distancing, avoiding large gatherings — I think people should consider avoiding travel, especially to tourist destinations where there's a greater chance of disease spread to individuals who can take it to more places."

But even if it's too late to halt the spread of the variant, a travel restriction could at least slow its exportation, said Stephen Kissler, an immunology and infectious disease expert with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Kissler said that the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines has given public health officials added incentive to impose travel restrictions, even if they would only slow the spread of the variant, because it gives them a longer window to get people protected from the virus before they are infected.

"Right now we're in a race with the virus trying to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and B.1.1.7 is one of the most serious threats to that," he said.

Federal officials have restricted domestic travel for individuals with infectious diseases in the past, but a broad restriction to a larger population that may have been exposed would be new.

On Biden's first day in office, he signed an executive order mandating the use of masks at all airports and on all commercial flights, ferries, trains and intercity buses.

While the federal government has sole authority over international borders, it defers to states over domestic quarantines during public health emergencies.

(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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