FLORIDA — A coalition of doctors and environmentalists called for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to issue a moratorium on the pre-harvest burning of sugarcane fields on Monday.
They warned that the toxic smoke emitted by the burns threatens to aggravate the already life-threatening respiratory effects of COVID-19.
"Breathing polluted air worsens the impact of the coronavirus," Dr. Ron Saff said during a virtual press conference. "It's a medical deadly double whammy."
Sugarcane burning is commonplace in Florida between October and April as a method of torching off the outer leaves of stalks before harvesting.
As growing communities have begun encroaching on sugarcane fields, smoke from the controlled burns has wafted over them, causing respiratory problems among predominantly Black and Hispanic populations.
It's incumbent on Fried, residents say, to step in.
Kina Phillips, a Glades County resident who said she met with Fried during the Democratic commissioner's 2018 campaign, is demanding action.
"She came and she sat across the table from us, and she showed - or acted like she showed - the consideration of what we was going through and how she could change this and change that, and now that she's in that position, I need for herself to turn her heart towards the Glades," Phillips said.
As Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, Fried has often been mentioned as a potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate.
Competing for the state's top office would require striking a delicate balance between her party's progressive base and powerful industries, like sugar farming.
It's a balance at least one Democratic kingmaker, Orlando lawyer John Morgan, believes Fried hasn't achieved.
At a recent press conference, he accused her of tepid support for his successful $15 minimum wage amendment and told reporters Fried was "beholden" to the sugar industry, encouraging her to "go work for sugar" rather than run for office.
Fried has taken action to reduce sugarcane burning, most notably limiting the hours and weather conditions when burns can take place.
In a statement on Monday, her office said "No Agriculture Commissioner in recent history has taken Florida’s prescribed burning program more seriously than Commissioner Fried. With public safety as the guiding principle, she and her administration have already implemented the most significant prescribed burning changes in the last 30 years."