(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On May 1, the Friday before Florida began its phased reopening, Ron DeSantis, the state’s 41-year-old governor and a fierce ally of President Donald Trump, held a news conference in Jacksonville, where he was born.
Two aspects of his remarks stood out for me. The first was how aggrieved he sounded. Practically since the coronavirus hit Florida, DeSantis has been pilloried for the way he has handled the crisis. He was late in calling for a statewide lockdown. He barred a journalist from a news conference after she requested that he accommodate the need for social distancing. He refused to shut down churches and synagogues. Following Trump’s lead, he touted the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus. His harshest critic, the Miami Herald, began an editorial in mid-April this way:
“You know what Florida really needs right now? A governor.”
Because the state’s parks were set to reopen on Monday, DeSantis chose to make his remarks at Little Talbot Island State Park in Jacksonville. The park sits on an undeveloped barrier island where visitors can enjoy “beachcombing, surfing, fishing, hiking” and bird-watching, according to a state website. It was a little after 11 a.m. The temperature was in the 80s. A kayak and a bicycle were on display behind his podium.
Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, had decided to reopen its beaches two weeks earlier, and as you no doubt recall, social media was full of photos — and withering criticism — of residents walking on the beach, most without masks or much concern for social distancing. The photos were often accompanied with the hashtag #FloridaMorons. It was clear the criticism infuriated DeSantis.
A lot of people — “from between D.C. and New York” — had made it sound as if opening the beach was akin to the sky falling, he said. He continued:
They did misleading pictures, acting like it was Lollapalooza on the beach or something like that. And this is what they were focused on. Not dirty subway cars. … And people here were mocked. … Has there been some type of major outbreak? No. In fact cases have declined. … Two weeks ago, the county reported 29 new cases. Out of a county of a million people, that is extremely low. That’s like lunchtime in Queens.
And the second thing that struck me about the governor’s remarks? How sensible they sounded. Seriously. Why was Florida opening its parks? Because, he said, even in a pandemic, open spaces were necessary for peace of mind. And because the evidence showed that the risk of contracting the virus was much lower outdoors than indoors. And because maintaining proper social distancing in parks was not terribly difficult.
Why had Florida decided to keep its restrictions on the three counties encompassing Miami and Palm Beach? Because those were the places with the highest density and the largest number of deaths and hospitalizations. In the rest of the state, the story was much different. He began ticking off the daily number of new cases in Duval County since the beaches opened: 11, 19, 18, 17, 24, 4, 10, 6. One of DeSantis’s mantras has been that Florida should not take a one-size-fits-all approach to coronavirus mitigation. Didn’t these numbers prove his point?
He also made some points that are considered impolitic these days. In the first phase of Florida’s reopening, social distancing will still be enforced; restaurants can’t exceed 50% capacity, for instance. And the elderly will still remain quarantined; indeed, with rare exceptions, Florida doesn’t even allow nursing homes residents to have visitors.
On the other hand, DeSantis said, the virus poses almost no risk for anyone younger than 50 with no underlying conditions. He added that one of the most common underlying factors was obesity. This is a truth many doctors working with Covid-19 patients will quietly acknowledge, but it’s not something they’re saying out loud.
Florida, DeSantis said again and again, was being guided by “facts, data and science.” His many critics disagree, accusing him of playing to Trump in handling the crisis. But if you take even a cursory look at Florida’s numbers, they tend to bear him out. DeSantis is right about how the virus treats the young differently from the old. In Florida, people 65 and older account for 26% of all cases but 83% of the deaths. People younger than 55 account for only 7% of the death toll.
And then there are the numbers that loom largest in Florida: the overall totals. Florida’s population is about 22 million. That is 9 million more than Pennsylvania and Illinois, and 15 million more than Massachusetts. Yet those smaller states have 57,000, 78,000 and 78,000 positive cases,(1)respectively, as of Sunday. Florida is nearing 40,000. The most important number, deaths, is even more surprising. Pennsylvania: 3,700 people have died of Covid-19. Massachusetts: almost 5,000. Illinois: around 3,400. And Florida? Fewer than 1,800.
Let me repeat that. In the nation’s third most populous state, fewer than 1,800 people have died of Covid-19. That is .008% of the population. That is extraordinary. The question is why? And what does it suggest about Florida’s effort to reopen its economy?
At the most basic level, the reason it’s hard to understand what is happening in Florida is because we simply don’t understand enough about the virus and how it works. A second reason, though, is that DeSantis’s response to the crisis has been so thoroughly politicized.
In late April, the governor was invited to the White House, where he met with Trump in a transparent effort to position Florida’s success as proof that governors from red states were handling the crisis better than those from blue states. With Trump standing next to him, DeSantis said that his “tailored and measured approach” was the reason Florida’s numbers were so much lower than the early models predicted. (One prominent model predicted that by late April, 465,699 Floridians would be hospitalized with Covid-19.) The contrast to the lockdown in states like New York was obvious.
On the Fox News website, former Education Secretary William Bennett co-wrote an article that praised DeSantis’s early focus on the elderly, who make up a large percentage of Florida’s population. His measures included using the National Guard to test residents and staff members of nursing homes, setting up golf-cart drive-through test sites and imposing a serious lockdown of long-term care facilities. The article happily noted that the nursing home death rate was 93% better than New York’s.
Did this targeted approach save lives? No doubt. But consider this: So far, according to the Florida Department of Health, 665 resident of long-term care facilities have died of Covid-19. That means one-third of all Floridians who have died because of the virus resided in nursing homes. That is exactly the national percentage. And there have been outbreaks in Florida nursing homes, just as there have been in northern blue states.
DeSantis’s critics, who tend to lump him together with Trump, say the governor doesn’t deserve any credit at all. They credit Florida’s big-city mayors, who imposed relatively strict sheltering-in-place rules even as the governor resisted doing so statewide. I spoke to two friends, one in Miami and another in Orlando, who both praised their city’s mayor for taking aggressive action; they also noted that those Jacksonville photos notwithstanding, most Floridians have been compliant.
But this doesn’t seem likely to be the whole answer either. Citizens of Boston and Detroit — and, yes, New York — have been just as compliant if not more so. Yet each of those cities has suffered more deaths than Miami. Some 20,000 New York City residents(2)have died of Covid-19; the number in Miami-Dade County, which has a population of 2.7 million, is fewer than 500.
“When you look at our demographics, we should have been the most devastated state of all,” said Charles Lockwood, a scientist who heads the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida. “The median age nationally is 38; it’s 42 in Florida. We have three times the national average in population over 65.” There are other oddities, too: in most of the country, more men than women get infected. In Florida, it’s 50-50. In many parts of the U.S., minorities are more vulnerable than white people; in Florida, white people account for at least 54% of the cases and 67% of the deaths. Hispanic people account for 21% of the deaths, compared with 70% for non-Hispanics.
Lockwood gave credit both to DeSantis and to Florida’s mayors for the actions they had taken. He praised the state for doing a better job ramping up testing than many other states. (He also dropped in the fact that his institution had developed a way to make swabs with a 3D printer.)
But he also had another thought. Maybe there was something to the notion that heat and humidity slowed the spread of this coronavirus. Maybe that was a way to explain the inexplicable. “There is not great data, but there is some data,” Lockwood said. Yes, it’s true that Trump mentioned this possibility several months ago. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong.
As Florida gradually reopens over the next several weeks, everyone is going to be watching to see whether cases and deaths surge there. To be blunt, the partisans in this polarized country will be hoping to be vindicated by the numbers.
But that’s such a mindless way of looking at this. If Florida’s death toll continues to fall, it doesn’t necessarily mean that DeSantis took the right approach; it might simply mean that he was more lucky than good, that unbeknownst to him the virus was simply less virulent in Florida than in New York or New Jersey. It’s a medical mystery, not a political one, and the most helpful approach is to stand back and see what the scientists can learn from Florida’s experience.
And if the numbers start to rise? That doesn’t necessarily mean that DeSantis’s approach was wrong. With the state’s economy at stake, he would be foolish not to attempt a reopening with the death toll so low. Higher numbers will mean that he has to reimpose his shelter-in-place rules, having learned that the virus wasn’t yet ready to release Florida from its grip.
“DeSantis is extremely data-driven,” Lockwood told me. “He is very focused now on testing and tracing. He sees this process like it’s a dial. He’s going to dial up or dial down the restrictions, depending on what the data is showing him.”
I’m as anti-Trump as the next guy. But I also know that the notion that there is a blue-state and a red-state way of attacking the virus is absurd. The point is to beat it back enough so that something resembling normal life can resume. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is relying on strict lockdown conditions because that’s what a state with nearly 27,000 deaths in two months demands. In Florida, the steps DeSantis is taking seem appropriate for a state that hasn’t yet hit 1,800.
What we should all be doing is rooting for them both to succeed. Is that really so hard?
(1) These figures are drawn from the Covid Tracking Project.
(2) New York City’s health department includes a little more than 5,000 “probabledeaths” that are not included in the state’s totals.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."
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