I Was Wrong About Florida’s Response to Covid-19
A little after 11 a.m. each weekday, I receive an email alert from the Miami Herald. It contains the latest Covid-19 numbers for Florida. And every day, I wince a little when I see them.
Florida is now the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. Since July 10, the number of new positive cases has averaged more than 10,000 a day. As of Wednesday, the total number of cases was nearly 380,000 according to the state’s health department. The positivity rate — the percentage of those tested who turn out to be infected — is well above 18%. Hospitals in Miami-Dade County are approaching capacity. “The residents here are terrified and I’m terrified,” Donna Shalala, Miami’s Democratic congresswoman, said over the weekend. She called for Governor Ron DeSantis to impose a lockdown.
And who claimed that Florida was doing a good job containing the pandemic? Oh, right. It was me.
I’ve been living in Boca Raton with my family for a little more than a month now. We came here so my youngest son could attend a tennis camp, and that’s turned out to be a good call.
We also thought we were going someplace where the coronavirus would be less of a threat than it had been in New York. That was not such a good call.
Also by Joe Nocera: Covid-19 Has the Power to Break the Sports World
As regular readers know, I wrote not one but two columns praising Florida’s response to the pandemic. The first time, in mid-May, I made my case by comparing Florida’s results with those of states with much smaller populations such as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Massachusetts alone had nearly twice as many positive cases and almost three times the number of Covid-related deaths. Indeed, with a population of more than 21 million, Florida had reported astonishingly few deaths — fewer than 2,000.
I gave DeSantis credit, noting that he was among the first governors to realize the importance of locking down nursing homes and insisting that staff and residents be tested regularly. He was also skeptical of the need for a statewide sheltering-in-place order. “There was really no observed experience of what the negative impacts would be,” he told the National Review.
I also believed that full-scale lockdowns cause more harm than good. I admired his willingness to buck the conventional wisdom. As a result, I was willing to overlook other things he was doing — or not doing — such as refusing to impose a statewide mask requirement. At least he wasn’t like Greg Abbott in Texas, overruling local communities wanting to issue mask mandates, I rationalized.
By the time I wrote my second Florida column, I had been living in Boca Raton for a little more than a week. Under pressure from all sides, DeSantis had grudgingly ordered a brief shutdown, but by the time my family and I arrived, we could eat in a restaurant, work out in a gym, have a drink in a bar and watch a film at a movie theater. Every one of these activities could spread the virus.
It was clear by then that the surge had begun; the daily positive cases had risen from about 2,500 to more than 5,000 in a week. I felt safe in my neighborhood; people were wearing masks and practicing social distancing. But in Miami, 45 minutes to the south, 20-somethings were said to have thrown all caution to the wind.
DeSantis attributed the growth of positive cases almost entirely to careless young adults. “I mean, they’re young people,” he said at a news conference. “They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”
Watching DeSantis’s news conferences became one of my new Florida rituals. It was easy to see why so many people disliked him. His office had promised to post data on hospitalizations, but when reporters asked him a week later why it hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t give a straight answer. He would rattle off Covid-19 statistics but never acknowledge that they meant things were going south. He urged people to wear masks but often didn’t wear one himself. He lacked empathy. And he often treated the media as if they were children who didn’t understand the science the way he did.
So why was I once again sanguine about Florida? Because despite the surge in positive cases, the number of deaths remained extremely low, and I believed that deaths were the most concrete way to measure the pandemic’s toll. It’s not that hospitalization data isn’t important, but it’s hard to come by and often unreliable. Some people have reported long-lasting and debilitating symptoms, but we don’t know yet whether they are common or rare. All through June, the average number of daily Covid-19 deaths in Florida remained below 40. I thought then — and I think now — that that was remarkable.
In retrospect, it’s clear that DeSantis — as well as governors in Texas, Arizona, California and a lot of other states — reopened too early because they too were swayed by their low death rates and were eager to get their economies back on track. They didn’t anticipate how opening bars, in particular, would spread the virus. They weren’t willing to get tough on people who refused to wear masks. Perhaps most important, they didn’t pay enough attention to the reproduction rate — that is, the estimate of the number of people each Covid-positive person would infect. (In Florida, according to one model, it is 1.42)
Nor did I. After my second Florida column, Felix Salmon, the financial journalist, tweeted: “I’m still unclear what exactly it is that you think DeSantis did that was so effective. Tell old people to be cautious?” His tweet caught me up short. I realized that I was giving the governor credit not because of any particular action he’d taken — other than sealing off nursing homes — but because so few Floridians had died. More likely, Florida was lucky rather than good.
Even now, with the staggering number of positive cases, DeSantis won’t issue a statewide mask mandate. Aside from bars, which he ordered closed, the governor has left decisions about shutting down businesses to the counties and cities. Early on, DeSantis took great pride in the low number of positive cases at The Villages, a huge retirement community in Central Florida with more than 120,000 residents.
He even cited it as an example of how the naysayers were wrong.
But now hundreds of people who live there are coming down with Covid-19, and the infection rate is 9%. The New York Times reported a few days ago that in the space of two weeks, the percentage of Covid-19 patients in their 80s who had been hospitalized in the Jackson Health System in Miami-Dade County had jumped to 18% from 9%. So much for DeSantis’s theory that only 20-somethings were getting sick.
When you look at the states that are facing surges right now — Florida, Texas, Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada, and others
— they follow the same pattern. They saw very little of the virus when the Northeast was getting crushed. They let their guard down — even bragged about their success. Then, when it turned out that virus had simply taken its sweet time making its way south and west, it took them too long to awaken to the threat.
Although the positive case numbers are terrible across the board, the death rates are still low. Texas has 347,000 cases but only 4,100 deaths. Mississippi has 45,000 cases and 1,400 deaths. Arizona has 149,000 cases, and less than 3,000 deaths. Florida’s 380,000 positive cases had yielded 5,435 deaths as of Wednesday.
Whenever I bring this up, I’m reminded that deaths are a lagging indicator. But this surge began in early June; if the virus were acting the same way it did in the Northeast, the death rate would be far higher by now. I also realize that doctors know a lot more about how to treat Covid-19. But that can’t be the whole answer either. For reasons not yet understood, the virus simply isn’t killing as many people in these states as it did in New York and New Jersey in March and April. The one thing we can say with some certainty is that it’s not the governors’ doing.
Earlier this month, DeSantis issued an emergency order that schools would have to reopen physically five days a week. Again, I find myself agreeing with him. There is scant evidence that grade-school children can transmit the virus to their elders, and keeping schools closed is likely to inflict enormous societal harm.
But in what I now realize is his modus operandi, DeSantis offered nothing besides his order. No sense that he understood the fears of parents or teachers. No offer of state money to help school districts prepare to open safely. No willingness to delay the opening of school to give everyone more time to get ready.
Teachers are furious, and so are many parents. School boards are protesting. The teacher’s union has sued the state. When I turn on the South Florida call-in shows, I hear angry voters pummeling DeSantis.
This time, I can’t disagree: He’s earned it fair and square.
For the record, the children and instructors at the tennis camp have all been following the appropriate Covid protocols, and (fingers crossed) nobody has been infected.
And 55 golf courses!
I’m leaving California out of this discussion because Northern California and Southern California have had such different pandemic experiences. Northern California has been more akin to the Northeast states that got hit early. Southern California is more like Texas and Florida, getting hit hard now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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