The office of Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner and a Democrat frequently at odds with the governor, disputed that farm towns were spreading the virus as much as Mr. DeSantis said, given that most harvests have concluded.
Yet the growing numbers and the potential for the virus to spread further outside of farming communities have remained a concern for state officials.
“You don’t want those folks mixing with the general public if you have an outbreak,” Mr. DeSantis said last week, infuriating longtime community activists who say the answer is not to isolate an already overlooked population but rather to help improve its working and housing conditions.
“There’s a big disincentive to take care of oneself and take care of one’s co-workers,” said Laura Safer Espinoza, executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council, a Sarasota-based organization that works with tomato growers and migrant workers. She said that agricultural employers in Florida were largely exempt from having to compensate workers who stay home sick, and that workers often ignore their symptoms and show up for work. “There’s a big fear of missing a paycheck,” she said.
Farmworkers tend to be younger and more fit than the rest of the population and may not suffer as severely from the virus. Some of them joke, in gallows humor, that if the tomato fertilizer has not killed them yet, maybe the virus will not.
While many are guest workers on temporary visas, others are undocumented, with little access to routine health care and an ingrained fear of the authorities.
In Immokalee, local leaders have pledged to keep Immigration and Customs Enforcement away from testing clinics, hospitals and isolation wards, but some farmworkers have given inaccurate names or addresses when they get tested, making contact tracing more difficult, said Kristine M. Hollingsworth, a health department spokeswoman. After realizing that sick people refused to be isolated in hotel rooms 45 minutes away in Naples, Collier County commissioners signed off last week on renting dorms in Immokalee.