I have spent the past three months in my home state of Florida, during which time I’ve watched it become the hottest of coronavirus hotspots on the planet. This week began with the announcement that the state registered over 15,000 new infections in a single day, which was almost 3,000 more daily cases than any state previously had recorded since the pandemic began. If Florida was a country, according to Reuters, it would have the world’s fourth-highest tally of new Covid-19 cases over that 24-hour span, trailing only the US, Brazil and India.
Florida has a well-deserved reputation as America’s weirdest state, so perhaps the pandemic punishment being meted out to us right now shouldn’t come as a shock. A 1948 Fortune magazine study observed: “Florida is a study in abnormal psychology, useful in signaling the … hidden derangements of the national mood.” A lot of bad trends in American life find their most bizarre and refined forms in the Sunshine state, which is why “Florida Man” has become shorthand for the bad behavior of too many state residents. As far as the present pandemic is concerned, the simplest and most convincing explanation for why Florida is experiencing an explosion of Covid-19 cases it that it is an extreme case of the broader American failure to take the pandemic seriously.
Related: Florida reports 15,000 new coronavirus cases, a record single-day total in the US
Considerable blame rests with the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. A former member of the House Freedom Caucus, the most slavishly pro-Trump faction in Congress, he won election as governor in 2018 largely on the strength of the president’s endorsement as well as campaign ads that showed him teaching his children how to build walls and recite “Make America Great Again”.
Unsurprisingly, he followed Trump’s lead in minimizing the seriousness of the pandemic. Florida was one of the last states to impose a stay-at-home order, in early April, and began reopening little more than a month later. A state data scientist responsible for tracking the spread of the virus was fired when, she claimed, she wouldn’t manipulate the data to show sufficient recovery from the pandemic to justify further easing of restrictions.
Even now, DeSantis is aggressively pushing for schools to reopen next month, on the grounds that if big-box stores like Walmart and Home Depot can resume operations successfully, then so can schools. Teachers object that schools are smaller and more crowded spaces, and that few customers spend eight hours a day in the stores. But perhaps DeSantis is channeling the dystopian future vision of the film Idiocracy, in which higher education has been taken over by stores like Costco.
DeSantis, to his credit, allowed some of the hardest-hit cities and counties to delay reopening and require masks in some public settings – unlike the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona, who blocked any pandemic restrictions more stringent than those imposed by the state (both governors have backtracked). He also seems, in hindsight, to have been unfairly pilloried by the media for allowing beaches to stay open, in view of current opinions on the lower risk of outdoor transmission.
Florida’s subtropical climate is an irresistible inducement to hedonism
It’s also clear that Florida, like the country as a whole, failed to shut down to the extent and duration necessary to contain the spread of the virus, or to wear masks and practice social distancing to the extent that was routine in most societies where the virus was successfully brought under control. During the first two months I was down here, I rarely saw as many as half of the customers (and in some cases staff) in supermarkets and drugstores wearing masks. Groups of teenagers thronged the shopping malls as if the pandemic was a thing of the past.
Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, puts on his mask as he leaves a news conference on Monday. Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP
Bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, gyms, massage parlors, nail salons and a host of other transmission-friendly environments reopened in early June, with distancing restrictions more or less ignored. Floridians who chafed at weeks of restrictions made up for lost time by partying down with a kind of feral intensity, to judge by local social media, at any rate. Florida’s subtropical climate is an irresistible inducement to hedonism, and many of the young people who crowded into bars and nightclubs believed that they had nothing to fear from the virus. Health officials have linked more than 150 Covid-19 cases to a single bar in Orlando. (DeSantis subsequently banned on-premise alcohol consumption at establishments that derive more than half of their income from alcohol sales.)
There could be some other factors peculiar to Florida that explain the virulence of the pandemic’s spread here. Partisanship is hard-edged here, and not wearing a mask has become a mark of Republican tribal identity. Many conservatives I know (particularly men) consider mask-wearing to be an infringement upon their constitutional freedom. Skepticism of science and experts, along with ingrained contrarianism – some otherwise sane Floridians I know resolutely maintain that the virus is a hoax, or no worse than seasonal flu – surely plays a role in some cases as well.
The state government’s handling of the pandemic has proved shockingly inadequate, largely because the previous Republican administration sabotaged its institutional capacities. It took weeks and even months for laid-off Floridians to get unemployment relief, largely because the online system was designed to make it harder for workers to receive benefits so that the previous governor (now a senator), Rick Scott, could claim lower jobless numbers.
Floridians historically have shown a ferocious individualism and an unwillingness to abide by state government restrictions. In addition, the severe economic damage inflicted by the shutdown surely has made people more willing to engage in magical thinking about how the dangers of the virus have been inflated by the media and the establishment, including the mistaken belief that hot weather prevents virus spread.
The inability of too many Floridians to distinguish between reality and fantasy is part of what’s frustrating about this place
Two-thirds of Florida’s residents (and nearly all of its tourists) come here from somewhere else, which may cut against the collective sense of social responsibility that’s more widespread in more settled communities and societies. And masks are indeed uncomfortable in Florida’s heat and humidity, as visitors to a reopened Disney World are finding out.
The pandemic laid bare the incompetence of the Trump administration, which took much too long to put widespread testing in place and has yet to implement contact tracing on the scale that’s needed. But the pandemic has also shown the weakness of America’s federal structure and its insufficient state capacity relative to other developed countries, where governments have implemented more uniform and effective national responses. Perhaps one of the pandemic’s legacies will be greater citizen insistence on competent government.
I’ve spent most of my adult life outside Florida, but I share the affectionate exasperation that many Floridians feel for their state. It’s not like anywhere else, for both good and ill. The New York Times recently interviewed a couple who visited the reopened Disney World and shared their belief that the park’s reopening “was the first thing that made us feel like we could leave our house and still feel safe”. Why? Because “it’s Disney”. The inability of too many Floridians to distinguish between reality and fantasy is part of what’s frustrating about this place, but their irrepressible optimism makes me hope we will get through this pandemic without losing too many more of them.