An old saying goes: “If you want to be someone, go to California. If you are someone, go to New York. If you were someone, go to Florida.”
But in 2020, Florida Man, Woman, and Child exacted revenge. Now, if you want to be someone, go to Florida. If you are someone, go to Florida. If you were someone, just stay in Florida.
Florida is the future people increasingly want.
It’s hard to tell the story of Florida’s ascent without the corresponding account of the COVID-19 global pandemic, though the category of “what Florida is doing right” is about far more than COVID. The Sunshine State enjoys the status of a rapidly growing destination that has been on the rise for years and still has yet to peak. The COVID storyline also treats Florida’s current trajectory as temporary, when it began before COVID and it’s just as likely to continue after the pandemic.
The handling of the virus by Gov. Ron DeSantis has certainly played a role in the state’s continued growth. The Republican governor, elected in 2018 and often mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, enacted policies that contrasted sharply with those of other large states. New York and California used harsh, business-killing lockdowns to try and shut down the virus, while DeSantis shied away from one-size-fits-all statewide solutions.
It was hard to ignore that despite the doomsayers, and there were many doomsayers, Florida’s pandemic outcomes were similar or better than other populous states. As of Jan. 25, New York had 218 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents. California had 94. Florida had 118. Even Texas had stricter reopening rules than Florida and yet had 117 deaths per 100,000.
Florida was an experiment in efforts to mitigate both the virus and the attendant economic damage at the same time. The results thus far affirm that there are varying approaches to the pandemic worth trying.
This good news caused consternation among politicians who had gone in the other direction. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s adviser Rich Azzopardi ridiculously speculated that Florida was hiding its real statistics.
When a former head of the New York state Democratic Party embarrassed the Cuomo administration by flying to Florida to get his coronavirus vaccine, Cuomo spokesman Jack Sterne responded, “Anyone holding Florida up as a good example of anything during this pandemic needs to have their head examined.”
But what else could the Cuomo crew say? New York’s economy lies in ruins, while Florida is poised to bounce back. Florida’s unemployment rate for December 2020 decreased to 6.1%, below the national average of 6.7%. New York state’s was 8.2%, with New York City at 11.4%. And these numbers don’t include Cuomo’s late-December arbitrary shutdown of indoor dining in New York City. The same month, California was at 8.8% and Texas was at 7.2%.
DeSantis didn’t just stop statewide lockdowns. He also used executive powers to proscribe local governments from using lockdowns without reason. A September order, which DeSantis renewed in November, said that “Floridians should not be prohibited by local governments from working or operating a business” and that “restaurants, including any establishment with a food service license, may not be limited by a COVID-19 emergency order by any local government to less than fifty percent (50%) of their indoor capacity. If a restaurant is limited to less than one hundred percent (100%) of its indoor capacity, such COVID-19 emergency order must on its face satisfy the following: i. quantify the economic impact of each limitation or requirement on those restaurants; and ii. explain why each limitation or requirement is necessary for public health.”
When compared to California, which closed outdoor dining despite no evidence such activities were spreading the virus, or New York, which closed indoor dining in New York City only, despite the city having the second-lowest case rate in the state, Florida’s insistence on using actual metrics to show spread appears not reckless but diligent.
“We will categorically not allow any local government to lock people down. We will not let any local government kick anybody out of their job,” DeSantis told reporters when asked about local officials’ requests for more control over coronavirus mitigation measures. “We will not let any local government fine individual Floridians. We will not let any local government shut down schools. And we’re not going to let any local governments do those things.”
Life goes on in Florida. The digital calendar website Burbio keeps tabs on “in-person community events held by libraries, governments, arts and recreation, chambers of commerce, and civic and volunteer groups” and tabulates a “community activity index,” with scores on a scale of 1-100. Florida consistently has a high score throughout the state. Miami is a 60. Manhattan and Los Angeles are both 20.
Normality has been one lure during the past 10 months. Another is schools.
Burbio’s K-12 school opening tracker “actively monitors 1,200 districts, including the 200 largest school districts in the US,” and maps out whether the districts are in-person or remote. Florida and Wyoming stand out as having nearly the entire state conducting in-person learning.
When I asked DeSantis which of his policies during the COVID era he was most proud of, he immediately answered that it was opening Florida schools. “I’m most proud of getting our kids back at school,” he said. “We knew the data, we knew it was low-risk. We felt we had to hold the line on this. We knew it was the case six to eight months ago. We were able to save the upbringing of hundreds of thousands of kids.”
DeSantis added: “They say you have to lock down, but states where kids are locked down, where kids aren’t in school, not playing sports, businesses are closed, have higher case numbers than we do.”
DeSantis has had to fight a national media skeptical of the Florida model from the beginning. He told me, “People in the corporate national media try to portray Florida as doing poorly with COVID, but the figures show the public doesn’t buy that. People have been voting with their feet. Twenty-five states have a higher COVID mortality average. In the pandemic as a whole, we’re 30th in cases.” DeSantis says families have moved from places such as California to Florida, fleeing closed schools.
The pandemic will end, but it exposed some important underlying fundamentals in the way states are governed. Those that arbitrarily closed schools and let the teachers unions decide when to reopen them will have to compete with states like Florida, which put children first. The space between the two is becoming a canyon.
Florida’s advantages, then, were made clearer during the pandemic when so many states face-planted, but they were drawing people south before COVID-19. A 2019 review of the top 20 cities with net in-migration in the past 10 years found that 11 of them are in Florida. Billionaire Carl Icahn, head of Icahn Enterprises, closed both of his New York offices and reopened in Miami that same year.