Considering its demographics and daily influx of tourists from around the world, Florida should be ground zero for the spread of COVID-19.
The Sunshine State is home to the highest percentage of senior citizens in the country, and that doesn’t include snowbirds from the Midwest and East Coast who seek temporary refuge during the winter months. Given what we know about the higher risk for people over age 65, hospitals in the state should be overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.
Further, as college campuses emptied out in early March and students headed to “Where the Boys Are,” these virus-carrying hedonists should have infected thousands of elderly Floridians. Florida also is a favorite destination for international tourists: Two of the top four U.S. cities visited each year by foreigners—Miami and Orlando—are in Florida. As the virus spread across the globe in the first two months of 2020, it undoubtedly made its way to the state unbeknownst to health officials.
But unlike New York City and a few other hotspots in the country, there is no evidence of a widespread, lethal outbreak of coronavirus in Florida. As of Monday morning, 90 percent of Floridians tested were negative for COVID-19. Only 217 people have been hospitalized and 14 total have died. (About eight people per day commit suicide in Florida according to 2017 statistics.)
The same tracker indicates that about 72 percent of those tested in New York state were negative, while 2,635 have been hospitalized and 114 have died.
There’s more good news for Florida: One-third of the state’s hospital beds remain available. During a press briefing over the weekend, Governor Ron DeSantis not only confirmed that 18,000 regular hospital beds are open but that 1,700 intensive care unit beds out of a total of 5,400 in the state are unused so far. DeSantis noted an increase in available beds over the past week, possibly due to the cancellation of elective surgeries, but those beds have not been filled with coronavirus patients.
Other information points to a nearly nonexistent threat of the Wuhan virus in Florida. According to the Centers for Disease Control, visits to health care providers by Floridians complaining of influenza-like symptoms, which mimic those for coronavirus, is “minimal.” The state’s surgeon general also confirmed that data during the governor’s weekend presser. A testing site in Jacksonville only attracted a few hundred people.
Yet even without an official shelter-in-place order, much of Florida is at a standstill. DeSantis, spurred by media pressure and government directives, continues to ratchet up efforts to curtail any spread of the virus during the height of the state’s lucrative tourist season.
On March 9, DeSantis declared a state of emergency. In response to President Trump’s 15-day directive to “flatten the curve,” prepared by the CDC, DeSantis shuttered most bars and set limits on the number of people gathered in restaurants and beaches. But after social media mobs shamed beachgoers and bar patrons in his state, DeSantis closed down most beaches as local governments followed suit. On Friday, the governor closed all restaurants and fitness gyms indefinitely.
Malls, resorts, and downtown areas are basically deserted. Highways usually packed with cars bearing license plates from northern states are lightly-traveled. Flatbed trucks filled with construction supplies, a common sight on the interstate, are nowhere to be seen. The luxury hotel adjacent to our condo in southwest Florida just closed until June 1. Tens of thousands of low-wage workers are out of a job without any indication of when, or if, they can return to work.
DeSantis, without a doubt, is in a tough spot. First, he’s a major target of Trump haters for his loyalty to the president when he was a member of Congress before barely defeating a Democratic rising star, Andrew Gillum, in November 2018. Second, any refusal to implement the CDC’s guidelines or cave to social media mobs looks like heartless disregard for grandma and grandpa. And third, DeSantis is widely considered to be a 2024 Republican presidential contender, so any action must be carefully calibrated to burnish his future prospects.
Local leaders continue to pressure DeSantis to announce a statewide shutdown. The Democratic mayor of Miami Beach just issued a stay-at-home order; his area counterparts are expected to do the same this week.
But as the national economy crashes and fear replaces reason among both the citizenry and political leaders at every level, someone needs to step up to challenge this unprecedented, destructive power play. (It’s vital to note that not one elected official was required to vote on the CDC guidelines now cited by federal and state officials as the law of the land.)
DeSantis could display real courage and leadership at a time when its in short supply. By March 30—the end of the so-called 15-day pause—if not sooner, DeSantis needs to publicly weigh the dire damage now inflicted on his state against the uncertain threat of coronavirus.
He’s already making important statements that his residents need to hear. Florida, DeSantis noted in an interview last week, enjoyed one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
“Our economy was humming, things were going along great, and now this external event, this virus, is going to dislocate a lot of people,” the governor said.
And it isn’t just economic havoc that the first-term governor fears: DeSantis has expressed his concerns about other implications of the crisis. “I really worry, as this drags out, the effect this is gonna have on mental health in the state and in the country because you’re looking at some major changes and upheavals that have happened in just a couple weeks,” the governor told reporters on Saturday.
He also has questioned the veracity of the sketchy science behind the draconian government cures for the disease, correctly observing that much of it is based on models and not hard data.
So, what could DeSantis do to counter the increasingly tyrannical responses enacted by his Democratic counterparts across the country? (Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Monday announced a 30-day shut down of his state’s economic and educational system, far exceeding recommendations by the CDC, even though the virus has resulted in just 32 hospitalizations and three deaths in the commonwealth.)
DeSantis could tout how predictions of doom have not materialized in his state despite an influx of likely infected people for at least the past several weeks. (One study concluded that ultraviolet light and humidity lowers infection rates.) Hospital beds are widely available and the state has a contingency plan to use sports stadiums and even hotels as backup triage centers should the situation deteriorate rapidly.
Data on the disease, DeSantis could explain, is unreliable and untested; viruses do not act the same in every locality and under every circumstance whereas the human toll from joblessness is very real. The most vulnerable populations—the elderly and the ill—and those who care for them will need to take special precautions such as hand-washing, masks, and other mitigation strategies.
If ongoing testing reveals a hotspot in the state, the government will move swiftly to contain it. Increased screenings for people traveling back to the state could be initiated at major hubs; routes from New York could be curtailed until the situation in that state improves.
But DeSantis has a chance to stand out among other leaders by putting his state back to work. There is no reason why he needs to follow along with CDC bureaucrats or left-wing Democrats or even the White House to sink his state’s future for nothing in exchange.
For now, he’s holding firm on his refusal to declare a shelter-in-place order.
“It would be a very blunt instrument,” he said Monday afternoon. “When you’re ordering people shelter-in-place, you are consigning . . . probably hundreds of thousands of Floridians go lose their jobs, you’re throwing their lives into potential disarray.”
There are more dire tradeoffs that DeSantis could condemn. Stripping the joy from people’s lives, provoking unnecessary panic, separating loved ones, further isolating lonely children and adults, and halting life’s celebratory moments have emotional costs that will never be fully measured. Those legitimate maladies are dismissed as we are told that major sacrifices are necessary to save even one life.
No one is speaking for the tens of millions of terrified Americans suffering mostly in silence over fears they will be shamed as uncompassionate, cruel or ignorant. It’s time for a real leader to emerge at the state level. Maybe DeSantis will be the one.