The state of Florida is home to the nation’s largest population of seniors and is a magnet for tourists traveling from all over the world. Amid a highly contagious, uncontained global pandemic known in some circles as the “boomer remover,” what could possibly go wrong for Florida?
If Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has anything to do with it, maybe everything.
The DeSantis approach might be described as “Mickey Mouse,” except Disney World had the good sense to shut down nearly two weeks ago. And the truth is that at this point, the millions of seniors living in Florida—who are most likely to be severely affected by COVID-19—would be better off entrusting a benevolent animated rodent to run their state.
On paper, the 41-year old governor appears to exude competence. He attended Yale and graduated from Harvard Law. He served as a Navy JAG, deployed to Iraq, and represented Florida’s 6th congressional district for five years before winning the gubernatorial race in 2018. When DeSantis edged out Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by less than a percentage point in a general election recount, Florida Republicans breathed a sigh of relief. But now that it’s come to governing, his resumé hasn’t been much help.
Because instead of being a steady, competent hand, DeSantis’ approach to the COVID-19 crisis has earned him a national reputation as the real-life version of the doofy-yet-dangerous Amity Island mayor from Jaws.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, DeSantis might as well have stood in the middle of I-95 with a giant welcome sign saying, “C’mon in! The water’s fine!” All while Spring Breakers came down in droves, scattering among the sandy Petri dishes up and down his state’s coastline.
At a March 18 press conference, he described precautionary measures taken by residents of The Villages, a massive 55-and up retirement community in Central Florida. “They’re playing golf, but they’re social distancing,” he said. They’re taking their own cart.” Spring Break isn’t just for people in college, you see. Let the good times and golf carts roll! Wooo-wee!
Compared to his fellow governors, DeSantis’s response has been almost carefree, especially given the vast numbers of out-of-state people funneling into Florida this time of year and the severe risks COVID-19 poses to older populations. A Tampa Bay Times analysis found that while he was among the early wave of governors to close bars and nightclubs, he was reluctant to close in-person dining at restaurants and gyms. He’s now closed public schools and banned visits to nursing homes, but unlike many other big states that have closed all non-essential services, Florida, by and large, remains open for business.
His explanation? “If you’re doing a big block party in California during a lockdown, wouldn’t it be better to just go to work?” DeSantis said Tuesday. “You’re probably going to transmit the virus less in the office than you are with a bunch of drunk idiots in a block party with everyone having a good time.”
For someone with DeSantis’s impressive pedigree, you’d expect a better straw man.
In the absence of leadership from the governor, some local officials have independently closed beaches and issued their own stay-at-home orders. Yet DeSantis maintains that statewide closures wouldn’t be an effective or necessary means of mitigating the spread of COVID-19. He said on Monday that it’s “[N]ot clear to me that doing a massive shutdown of the entire state would even work.” DeSantis also said, “[I]f you look at Florida’s situation right now, this is not a virus that’s impacting every corner of the state.”
One of Florida’s Democratic state senators fumed over DeSantis’s explanation saying, “That is the dumbest s— I have heard in a long time.”
As of Thursday, Florida ranked eight in the country for the number of confirmed cases and the virus is spreading across geographic and demographic populations. As of this writing, there have been confirmed cases in 46 of Florida’s 67 counties. Students from the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, and the University of Tampa have all tested positive for the virus (at least five of them with cases traced to Spring Break travel). On March 26, there were 2,352 known cases, with a death toll of 29. The Miami Herald pleaded in a Sunday editorial, “Coronavirus is killing us in Florida, Governor DeSantis. Act like you give a damn.”
The governor’s only real effort to limit travel to date has been a half-baked executive order that requires anyone flying to Florida from New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut to self-quarantine for 14 days. This order is, in theory, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
How is the order being enforced? No one seems to be clamping ankle bracelets on travelers and tracking their movements to make sure they aren’t running to Publix. And it doesn’t apply to anyone driving into the state or traveling by rail, either. (What? The virus doesn’t survive travel by auto or rail? By Jove, we have a cure!)
DeSantis isn’t only blasé about noncompliance from out-of-state residents. In speaking out against potential stay-at-home orders enacted by other governors he said, “The fact of the matter is a governor is not going to start imprisoning people just because they leave their house. So, you are going to have a lot of noncompliance.”
For reasons apparently unknowable to DeSantis, 21 other governors have found it worthwhile to issue stay-at-home orders to their residents without mass arrests for non-compliance. One has to wonder what all of them know that DeSantis doesn’t.
Maybe DeSantis is so all-in on Trump’s theory that the “cure can’t be worse than the disease” that he’s ready to skip the “cure” part altogether. Or, maybe he’s catering to the magical thinking of his fanatical Trump-supporting base who thinks COVID-19 is a media-hyped-hoax-scam.
Whatever he’s thinking, he’s making a deathly gamble.
Florida is home to 4.3 million Americans over the age of 65. Together, they make up 20 percent of the state’s population. We do not know the fatality rate for seniors from COVID-19—the data varies from country to country and is dependent on preexisting conditions and access to medicine after viral onset. But it’s high.
Given this, one would think DeSantis would be willing to try basic contagion mitigation techniques. Not so. Following Trump’s lead, he’s betting Florida doesn’t need them.
Ron DeSantis isn’t merely risking his political career on the coronavirus, though. He’s risking the lives of millions of Floridians.