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Let the Sun Shine In

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eye on the news

Let the Sun Shine In

Florida has proven that a measured, evidence-based response to reopening works. May 27, 2020
Covid-19

For a moment in April, the Internet tried to cancel Florida. Photos showing crowds flocking to Jacksonville Beach amid the Covid-19 pandemic brought the hashtag #FloridaMorons to the top of Twitter. The media eagerly spun scenes of ignorant spring breakers endangering themselves and others. Nearly two months after America’s first case of coronavirus, here was Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, joining neighboring state Georgia’s “experiment in human sacrifice” by letting locals lift restrictions on their own.

Nearly a month later, Jacksonville’s Duval County reports new Covid-19 hospitalizations in the single digits. Rates of hospitalizations, cases, and deaths remain steady across Florida. So far, fewer Floridians have died of the novel coronavirus than in New York’s nursing homes alone (2,259 compared with 5,800, at least). More than half of the state’s known cases of Covid-19 are found in just four South Florida counties—the top out-of-state destinations for fleeing New Yorkers. As Politico recently concluded, “Florida just doesn’t look nearly as bad as the national news media and sky-is-falling critics have been predicting for about two months now.”

There’s still a lot that we don’t know about mitigating Covid-19, but Florida’s approach—a decentralized health response with targeted lockdowns and quarantines reinforced by voluntary social distancing—appears to have worked. Other populous states adopting this approach, such as Tennessee, have seen similar success. Governor DeSantis’s experience suggests that it is possible to keep a lid on the coronavirus even while gradually reopening.

Florida is large and diverse. North Florida and the Panhandle are the reason for the saying that the farther north you go in Florida, the further south you get; the I-4 corridor, running from Tampa through Orlando to Daytona Beach, is pure Middle America. South Florida is the polyglot “New Havana,” a bubbling melting pot between the Gulf and Gold Coasts. Unsurprisingly, then, DeSantis gave counties leeway in responding to Covid-19. “The epidemic is not going to affect this state uniformly,” he told National Review.

Miami-Dade County, for instance, shuttered all its nonessential businesses before New York City, and it was local leaders who first closed many of Florida’s beaches and cracked down on large gatherings. When Florida did issue a stay-at-home order (two days after New York), it targeted the state’s 4 million seniors and residents with underlying medical conditions. Statewide rules issued on April 1 broadly limited “nonessential” activities and business, but by this point Floridians had already imposed their own restrictions on themselves.

Meantime, the state government in Tallahassee was ramping up testing and issuing personal protective equipment (PPE), ultimately totaling more than 7 million masks and a million gloves. By late April, the state was conducting some 12,000 daily Covid-19 tests, with capacity for more, and drive-through facilities alone had conducted more than 100,000 tests by early May. (New York, by contrast, was doing 20,000 tests daily in mid-April, at least 100,000 below what it needed, considering the size of its outbreak.) State-based labs were soon running 30,000 samples daily. Decentralizing testing has meant that Jacksonville’s testing volume, for instance, now runs far above federal guidelines. And the state’s rate of positive samples—a sign of testing capacity relative to size of outbreak—stands at 2.41 percent as of May 24, well below the World Health Organization’s threshold of 5 percent for safely reopening.

Florida’s response to Covid-19 focused on nursing homes. More than a third of the nation’s Covid deaths have occurred among the residents and staff of long-term-care facilities—a share that jumps as high as 80 percent in Minnesota and West Virginia. Florida counts more than 350,000 people living or working in such facilities, and the state has one of the highest shares of residents over the age of 65. At the start of the outbreak, Florida deployed rapid-response teams to these facilities to test, treat, and, if necessary, isolate or quarantine residents testing positive for the virus. The state issued PPE to these facilities and mandated its use. While New York was moving sick patients into nursing homes, Florida was moving them out. On March 15, DeSantis prohibited the transfer of Covid-19-positive patients into long-term-care facilities and established Covid-only homes for getting residents out who could not be properly isolated or treated. By contrast, New York governor Andrew Cuomo—celebrated in the media, while DeSantis was condemned—required that infected patients be admitted into nursing homes, where Cuomo himself had said the virus could spread “like fire through grass.”

As DeSantis saw growing numbers of cases from out-of-state visitors, he promptly ordered travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days, a measure that the governor believes “no doubt” saved lives. Florida’s targeted, data-driven approach to tackling the coronavirus may be the most realistic strategy when many are still trying to understand how Covid-19 spreads—and how to stop it. The Department of Health produces a daily report for the governor tracking the outbreak and new hotspots, such as state prisons, or The Villages, a sprawling retirement community with more than 125,000 people, which hasn’t had a single resident hospitalized for more than a week. Contrary to what recent media coverage would suggest, Florida’s Covid-19 open-data dashboard has earned praise from officials like Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator.

DeSantis is not the only governor whose performance is going largely uncredited. Tennessee’s governor Bill Lee is an unsung hero of the pandemic. Lee declared a state of emergency in March and told residents to “do your part, stay apart.” The state’s largest cities—Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville—issued stay-at-home orders as cases appeared, but Lee held off on statewide mandates. Studies have since shown that such early, targeted lockdowns, combined with state guidance, appear to be more effective at mitigating the spread of the virus than late-stage total lockdowns. Lee focused on ramping up Tennessee’s testing capacity, ultimately hitting more testing benchmarks than any other state. During the height of the pandemic, Tennessee’s testing rate was three times that of neighboring Kentucky—and all tests were provided free of charge, regardless of symptoms.

Lee’s performance—and its media treatment—contrast sharply with that of neighboring governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky. Louisville’s Courier-Journal has praised Beshear’s response while declaring that Lee has “taken more heat than Prince’s Hot Chicken for his slow response to the coronavirus outbreak.” Even an ocean away, Beshear won praise: the U.K.’s Guardian celebrated his “quick pandemic response, his calm, empathetic briefings” and likened him to “Mr. Rogers.” Yet Kentucky has now suffered more deaths than Tennessee from the virus, though the latter state’s population is half again larger.

In states such as Tennessee and Florida, where lockdowns are ending, infection rates are declining, not increasing, as JPMorgan Chase found, “even after allowing for an appropriate measurement lag.” Rising case counts, where they occur, have more to do with increases in testing capacity than renewed outbreaks. This should encourage some humility from observers who feared the worst with reopening, especially in a media environment overwhelmingly concentrated in the blue, urban hubs that have suffered so much more from this viral outbreak than the redder states now likelier to reopen. Even today, after the virus has spread to all corners of the country, the Tri-State area alone accounts for 43 percent of the nation’s deaths. Indeed, the closer one gets to New York City, the higher the death toll from Covid-19. No wonder that, at the height of the pandemic, some 420,000 people fled the Big Apple to its suburbs and to South Florida.

Florida’s beaches and businesses are slowly opening, county by county, and life is returning to a semblance of normalcy. Retailers and restaurants, hair and nail salons, gyms and hotels are opening with reduced occupancy; soon, “phase two” will allow gatherings of up to 50 people and further loosen occupancy limits. Partially opened Tampa was among the first U.S. cities to let restaurants extend dining space onto closed streets and open sidewalks, helping them stay in business while preserving social distancing.

Florida considers numerous factors in deciding when and how to reopen, such as whether the state is controlling the virus’s spread, containing new cases, ensuring hospital capacity, and monitoring vulnerable populations. It turns out that most Americans are not heedlessly returning to “normal” as viral videos suggest, but are wearing masks and social distancing on their own, including in Florida.

The United States has reached a grim milestone: 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. In addition to its toll in lives, the virus has also ushered in an economic downturn as deep as the Great Depression nearly a century ago, with more than 38 million Americans having filed for unemployment. Each state’s experience differs, with each paying its own price in lives or livelihoods. Governors should be judged by their own state’s record going into and coming out of this crisis. It’s a standard that surely elevates governors like Ron DeSantis and Bill Lee—and likely condemns Andrew Cuomo.

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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