Florida Governor Ron DeSantis likes doing stuff the hard way. He has a talent reminiscent of “the former guy” for aggressive media banter, stoking conflict, and prospering in its wake. This quality makes him an odds-on favorite for capturing the affections and nomination of the populist Republican party in 2024, assuming the former guy doesn’t make another run for the presidency. But as applied to COVID-19, DeSantis’s governing behavior may also be a threat to the rest of the country.
As disaster unfolded in New York and New Jersey this time last year, DeSantis refused to bend to public health advice, doing his best, against the counsel of experts and the wishes of many Florida county and local elected officials, to keep the state mostly open. The annual spring break bacchanalia went forward largely unimpeded despite the risk of college students returning to their campuses and homes across the country with a dose of COVID-19 to share with fellow students, their families, and their communities.
The entirely predictable outcomes ensued. A study of spring breakers’ phone-location data found that the communities these students returned to saw their infection rates spike by 20 percent two weeks after spring break. Three weeks later, hospitalizations and mortality spiked too as secondary infections jumped from the relatively invulnerable college kids and began to spread to the older and sicker.
People who didn’t go to Florida and didn’t know anyone who went to Florida got very sick because of those who did. They, in turn, shared the wealth with yet more people. Some of these people died. At least for some Americans, weak moral imaginations and strong capacities for rationalization result in a difficulty grasping, or perhaps just a choice to ignore, the way that COVID-19 rides stowaway with our impulses for sociability and pleasure.
DeSantis appears to be untroubled by disease impacts that aren’t in his direct line of sight. Hordes of young people are preparing to descend on the state again for a few weeks of fun, sun, and infection. The context, however, is different this year. While Florida is being lionized as the “state that did it right” over the past year—eschewing lockdowns, keeping bars and restaurants open, and restarting schools while avoiding the maelstrom that engulfed similarly indulgent states—there’s a new kid on the epidemiological block: B.1.1.7, the so-called U.K. variant.
This variant now likely makes up at least half of all new Florida infections, which have been clocking in at about 5,000 per day. With this variant’s higher transmissibility (30 to 70 percent greater than the original strains) and apparent elevated lethality, Florida will be gunwale-under in the new strain just as the youthful, mostly maskless, sun- and alcohol-soaked students make their appearance on Florida’s beaches and in its nightclubs. When they drag their bleary-eyed selves back to their dorms, classrooms, families, and communities, many will be bringing a little extra with them.
In the meantime, more than 2 million vaccines are being administered on average every day now in the United States, with the national supply of vaccines expanding rapidly. By early May, it should be a vaccination free-for-all with kind-looking nurses approaching people on the street to ask if they want a jab. Nevertheless, as Michael Osterholm likes to say, the variants have already won the race. Until we reach vaccine-induced herd immunity, there’s still lots of kindling lying around threatening to spark outbreaks, illness, and deaths—and potentially force new shutdowns similar to those experienced by the U.K. and much of the European Union since Christmas. Combined with the illnesses and deaths, that would feel like an enormous step backwards to a nation that is finally feeling hopeful. The vaccines will bring this pandemic under control shortly but if we aren’t careful, it could still be a very rough spring.
We don’t yet fully understand how Florida has gotten along reasonably well in the pandemic. The state is 28th in per capita COVID infections, slightly better than California and slightly worse than New Jersey and New York, solidly in the middle of the pack, despite its public health laissez-faire. The simplest explanation for this could be that Floridians live outdoors for more of the year than people elsewhere. (Infections rose sharply last summer when the heat drove people inside.) But when it comes to the pandemic, what happens in Florida—or in any state, for that matter—doesn’t stay there. If we’re unlucky (and really, who would bet on luck at this point?), the state could become the primary driver of an unpleasant and potentially dangerous national COVID coda.