Florida, America’s pandemic playground

By Michelle Cottle

By now, Americans have come to expect a certain level of quirkiness from Florida. All that heat and humidity does something to people — not to mention the invading hordes of Northern and Midwestern retirees in search of bountiful sunshine and friendly tax laws. In recent years, “Florida Man” has become mocking shorthand for state denizens caught in acts of flamboyant idiocy, often involving some mix of drugs, guns, cops and predatory reptiles.

But in the age of COVID-19, Florida’s free spirit, welcoming nature and dependence on tourism dollars have been putting residents at a different level of risk, in many ways beyond their control. In the pandemic’s early days, local beaches and bars were overrun by cavorting spring breakers, carelessly spreading contagion in their wake. For a brief stretch in April, social distancing restrictions were imposed to help slow the spread. But as the state has reopened, the virus has resurfaced with a vengeance. As of Wednesday, Florida had reported over 152,000 confirmed cases, 3,500 virus-related deaths and daily new infection counts in the thousands.

Even so, the state’s leaders keep sending mixed signals on prevention. People are being urged to wear masks, and the sale of alcohol at bars has been suspended statewide. But Sen.

Rick Scott has repeatedly sneered at the idea of government ordering folks around, insisting that if you simply explain the risks, they will do the right thing. In an interview Monday with Greta Van Susteren, he compared educating people on the need for masks to warning them of an approaching hurricane. Scott did not address the fact that hurricanes are not contagious.

Gov. Ron DeSantis also remains loath to require mask wearing and is largely leaving it to local officials to impose safety measures.

And now, to top it all off, Florida seems poised to become a COVID-19 theme park of sorts, a place willing to host large-scale, high-profile gatherings that more skittish — or perhaps more sensible — communities have deemed too hot to handle.

Last week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the University of Michigan had withdrawn from hosting the Oct. 15 matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, citing concerns about the pandemic. It’s hard to fault the school. Such debates typically draw not only the candidates and campaign workers but also a flood of media and supporters, as well as the local workers who staff the venues. In his letter to the commission, the university’s president, Mark Schlissel, explained that the school feared it was “not feasible for us to safely host” the event as planned.

Instead, the proceedings will take place at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. Last summer, the center hosted the first debate of the Democratic presidential primary season, but the situation has obviously shifted a bit since. On Sunday, the reported daily case count in Miami-Dade County hit a record 2,152, accounting for more than a quarter of the state’s new cases. The area also reported that hospitalizations had risen for the previous 15 days straight. As the event nears, the center and the commission are expected to detail enhanced safety measures.

The debate announcement came not two weeks after the even bigger news that the Republican National Committee is moving part of its presidential nominating convention — at least all the fun, sparkly bits, including Trump’s acceptance speech — to Jacksonville, Florida, in late August. The multiday spectacle was originally set for Charlotte, North Carolina, where some of the boring official business, such as voting on the nominations, will still occur.

But North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, a Democrat, could not guarantee that the pandemic would be under sufficient control by next month to allow for the kind of raucous, overcrowded, extended extravaganza that Trump demanded. The president slapped down the proposals for smaller crowds, social distancing and mandatory masks and instead went forum-shopping for a state willing to let him throw his dream party, public health risks be damned.

And so back to Florida we go. It makes perfect political sense: The president recently made Florida his adopted home state, after New York hurt his feelings once too often. DeSantis is an outspoken Trumpist, unlikely to make a big fuss about the perils of jamming thousands of celebrators into an enclosed arena. Jacksonville’s mayor, Lenny Curry, is a former chairman of the state Republican Party with his own misgivings about government mandates.

But the situation in Jacksonville, Florida’s most populous city, has taken a scary turn of late, with COVID-19 cases going up, up, up. Things have gotten so worrisome that on Monday, Curry ordered that masks be worn indoors in public spaces, which includes private businesses. The requirement applies to everyone over age 6, though certain categories of establishments are exempt, and proprietors are responsible for ensuring compliance. Curry did not attend the news conference at which his order was announced.

Trump’s big blowout is still several weeks off, but Jacksonville’s mask mandate could prove awkward if the virus has not loosened its grip by then. With many top Republican leaders coming out as pro-mask, Trump told Fox Business Network on Wednesday that he was “all for masks” and would wear one himself if he were “in a tight situation with people.” He has, in fact, spent this pandemic pointedly not wearing one, at least not in public, and advertising his disdain for such unmanly accouterments.

No matter how wild and crazy he can get at times, Florida Man surely deserves better than all this.

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