Politics

Florida Is Facing a Coronavirus Catastrophe

Following Trump’s lead, Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to shut down the state. Now he’s scapegoating New Yorkers for surging infections.

Ron DeSantis, wearing a suit, speaks.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference on Monday in Miami Gardens, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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As the coronavirus spreads throughout Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis finally took action this weekend—not to instate social distancing or quarantine requirements, like many other governors have done, but to target visitors from New York and New Orleans. DeSantis, a Republican, set up checkpoints on the highway to identify cars from the New York City area and Louisiana, which are suffering intense outbreaks. State troopers will stop these drivers, direct them to self-quarantine, and threaten them with 60 days in jail if they don’t comply.

It’s certainly true that residents of COVID-19 hot spots should not flood other states, though there’s no evidence that a wave of coronavirus refugees is descending upon Florida. But while DeSantis patrols the borders, Florida’s outbreak is already spiraling out of control: As of Monday morning, there were nearly 5,500 COVID-19 cases in the state, and 63 deaths attributed to the disease, a rapid spike from the previous few days. The virus’s exponential growth in Florida indicates that cases are poised to skyrocket. Yet DeSantis is defying public health advice that might slow infections within the state. As he announced the interstate checkpoints last weekend, Floridians flocked to the many state beaches that remain open. In the absence of statewide leadership, counties have tried to enact their own measures, with mixed results. Duval County closed its beaches, but neighboring St. John’s County did not, leading residents of the region to swarm its coastline. Beachgoers packed the stretch of sand just south of the county line. Until DeSantis shuts down the state beaches—a move he still firmly resists—residents will continue to congregate, despite public health experts’ warnings that they will exacerbate Florida’s coronavirus outbreak.

Florida’s first coronavirus case was announced on March 1. Since then, the virus has been permitted to spread nearly unchecked. As other governors shut down nonessential businesses, DeSantis allowed beaches, bars, restaurants, and amusement parks to remain open for weeks at the height of colleges’ spring break season. Inevitably, spring breakers contracted the virus and spread it throughout the state weeks ago. Despite DeSantis’ fixation on out-of-state visitors, the vast majority of Florida’s coronavirus patients are residents of the state who likely contracted the virus from other residents through community spread. DeSantis cannot resolve this crisis by vilifying tourists. The infections are coming from inside the state.

DeSantis has also promoted misinformation about COVID-19, falsely contradicting Anthony Fauci’s assertion that the state was experiencing community spread. And he still resists any kind of statewide shutdown, insisting that he “cannot lock down our society with no end in sight,” echoing Trump’s claim that “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” On Monday, the governor finally signed a toothless order that advises residents of southeast Florida, the hardest-hit region, to stay inside. But the “safer at home” order, which merely urges residents to stay inside, appears to be weaker than the “shelter in place” order that members of Congress requested. Local officials like state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat, have also denounced its limited scope, saying a “patchwork approach will not cut it.”

So why is DeSantis refusing to compel all Floridians to stay home? From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis has adopted whatever policies seem to mollify Donald Trump. That is no surprise. During the 2018 Florida gubernatorial primary, Trump endorsed DeSantis, effectively clinching the nomination for the previously obscure congressman. In return, Trump expects DeSantis to ensure that he’ll win Florida in the 2020 presidential election. But the governor has reportedly done little to help Trump, neglecting the state’s Republican infrastructure necessary to churn out GOP voters while paying insufficient fealty to the president. On March 5, Politico reported that the “bad blood” between the two men might soon spill out into the open.

It has not—probably because in the intervening weeks, DeSantis has adopted Trump’s disastrously negligent, hands-off approach to the virus.

Trump has richly rewarded DeSantis for toeing the White House’s line. The president showered DeSantis with praise at a Saturday press briefing, declaring: “He’s a very talented guy. He’s a very good governor. Everyone loves him. He’s doing a fantastic job for Florida.” The federal government has also given Florida adequate medical supplies from the national stockpile while denying them to states with Democratic governors. According to the Washington Post, for instance, Maine asked for a half-million N95 masks and received about 5 percent of what it requested. Florida, by contrast, requested 430,000 surgical masks, 180,000 N95 respirators, 82,000 face shields, and 238,000 gloves—and received it all within three days.

And yet, despite doing everything Trump could ask for, DeSantis has failed miserably to contain COVID-19. The state still isn’t testing nearly enough people, allowing the virus to spread silently while county officials implement public health measures that Desantis rejects. In the Miami region, infections may soon reach New York City levels, straining hospital capacity and forcing doctors to ration scarce equipment like ventilators. DeSantis has responded to this emerging catastrophe by looking the other way and continually targeting New Yorkers. In addition to the interstate checkpoints, the governor has stationed members of the National Guard at Florida’s airports, where troops screen travelers from the New York region and direct them to self-quarantine for two weeks. “After all the hard work,” DeSantis explained, “we don’t want it to now get seeded as people flee the hot zone.” His spokeswoman decried New Yorkers visiting Florida, accusing them of carrying the virus into Florida, “unwittingly or not.”

Randy Fine, a Republican state representative and DeSantis ally, was even more explicit in maligning New Yorkers. “Seems like some of our friends from New York are trying very hard to make us like New York,” Fine said on Monday. “We don’t know how many people those criminals spread the virus to here.”

The notion that “criminals” are bringing the coronavirus into Florida is a red herring. The governor and his associates seem to have settled on that narrative to distract from their calamitous mismanagement of the state’s outbreak. By scapegoating New Yorkers, they are drawing attention from the reality that Florida is already undergoing community spread, and has been for weeks. The number of cases in Florida is not exploding because malevolent New Yorkers are importing COVID-19 into an otherwise pristine state. It is exploding because Floridians are passing the virus between each other, and DeSantis has done shockingly little to contain community spread.

Instead, DeSantis is crafting an us vs. them narrative: The good people of Florida must protect their state from invasion to save themselves. He has fallen back on border security, a familiar tactic. Trump, too, has made border closures a cornerstone of his flailing efforts to contain the virus. On Saturday, the president floated (then scrapped) a plan to quarantine the New York region, claiming that Florida had been helplessly overrun with New Yorkers. This focus on limiting interstate travel only obscures the fact that state and federal governments must more aggressively combat COVID-19, which is already in every state—and spreading more quickly in states that won’t shut down.

As coronavirus cases in Florida skyrocket, it will be increasingly difficult for DeSantis to lay culpability at the feet of intruders who snuck in from another state. The question now is whether DeSantis is willing to risk his relationship with Trump by imposing public health measures that actually contain community spread, or whether he will play along with the president’s fantasies. It is, for many Floridians, a question of life or death.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Tuesday’s episode of What Next.