Science

Once Again, Florida Waited Too Long

My home state is an expert at sticking its head in the sand. But given the state’s older population and few precautions, I’m worried about what the coronavirus will do to it.

A beach crowded with people in swimsuits.
Beachgoers at Miami Beach on Wednesday. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

On March 11, as the coronavirus spread silently across Florida, the state Legislature passed its very first bill directly addressing climate change. The measure is responsive rather than proactive: It prohibits the use of taxpayer money on public construction projects that are vulnerable to flooding because of sea level rise. Florida’s sea levels are currently rising one inch every three years and could rise 15 to 20 inches in Miami Beach and the Keys by 2050. Coastal cities already suffer regular flooding, a taste of catastrophes to come. Rising temperatures are also intensifying the hurricanes that periodically tear across Florida, taking lives and destroying property. These looming disasters haven’t stemmed Florida’s rapid population growth, though, which currently requires the state to pump more and more groundwater—destabilizing the limestone bedrock and creating dangerous sinkholes.

Florida, the state where I grew up, is the world’s leader in delusional optimism. It is ground zero for rising seas, and it didn’t pass a climate change bill until 2020. People were still packing its beaches as recently as Wednesday, partying together while much of the nation self-quarantined. Disney World did not close until Sunday, allowing families to frolic in close quarters. Spring breakers were still binge drinking at bars and nightclubs until Gov. Ron DeSantis shut them down on Tuesday. Even as I write this, DeSantis still refuses to close the state’s beaches, leaving the decision up to localities—and ensuring that large crowds will descend upon those beaches that remain open.

As of Friday morning, there were 520 cases of COVID-19 in the state, as well as 10 deaths from the virus. Florida’s many seniors—more than 20 percent of the state’s 21.5 million residents are over 65—are at heightened risk of dying, and there are already suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases at 19 long-term care facilities. The actual number of current infections in Florida is undoubtedly far, far higher, since there is a dire lack of tests. Meanwhile, DeSantis, a Republican, has repeatedly promoted misinformation about the virus: He contradicted infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci’s assertion that the state had community spread and asserted, falsely, that asymptomatic people cannot test positive. Meanwhile, it is business as usual at the state capitol, where more than 100 Florida legislators gathered on Thursday for votes. Yes, in person. Even though a Florida congressman tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday.

The consequences of the state’s collective inaction are only starting to become apparent. As the number of confirmed cases skyrockets with (slowly) accelerated testing, so too will the number of deaths. On Thursday, a man who had visited Disney World earlier in the month died from COVID-19. He was 34 years old. It is extremely likely that the families who strolled around the Magic Kingdom during a pandemic spread the virus between one another. So, too, did the beachgoers and spring breakers who tanned and swam and drank together well after COVID-19 became a national emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begged Americans to avoid crowds and large gatherings. But who wants to listen to the CDC when the party is still raging outside on the beach that the governor isn’t worried enough to close?

It won’t be so easy to ignore the coronavirus once patients begin overwhelming the state’s hospitals. Medical facilities around the country are facing shortages of beds and supplies. But the crisis will be especially acute in Florida, since the Republican-controlled Legislature has long rejected Medicaid expansion, forcing the closure or downsizing of hospitals. Like every state, Florida faces a potential shortage of ventilators necessary to keep some coronavirus patients alive. Its doctors may eventually have to ration this equipment, effectively deciding which patients will die first.

Floridians are masterful at ignoring the inevitable. What else explains the fact that millions of them keep purchasing property on coasts that will soon flood and limestone that may soon collapse? It took decades for their Legislature to begin responding to rising seas; their previous governor, Republican Rick Scott, opposed all climate legislation and banned state agencies from even using the terms climate change and global warming. No wonder it took weeks for DeSantis, the current governor, to acknowledge the gravity of COVID-19. The state government has long operated under the fantasy—previously enforced through censorship—that the chief existential threat of the 21st century somehow does not affect Florida, one of the most vulnerable states. After ignoring visibly encroaching seas for so long, it must have been easy for lawmakers to downplay an invisible virus.

When it comes to sea level rise, state officials—not the politicians, but the experts behind the scenes—have started to make difficult decisions in the face of limited resources. In the Keys, these officials have begun to admit that they will not be able to protect every home from climate change. They are realizing that they must dispense limited public resources carefully and that it does not make sense to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to spare a handful of homes. In Palm Beach County and along the Gulf Coast, researchers must decide which archeological sites can be preserved and which must be surrendered to the sea. Theoretically, Florida could spend billions in an effort to protect everything and everyone from climate change. Realistically, the state must triage, determining which houses and historical sites are worth saving.

In the very near future, Florida’s doctors will have to do the same, in a much more painful way. They will have to decide which lives are worth saving from COVID-19, a ghastly dilemma they might have had to face less often had DeSantis followed other governors in shutting down schools, beaches, bars, restaurants, and theme parks much earlier in an effort to flatten the curve. Instead, he waited until the last possible moment, well after some huge, unknown number of people were needlessly exposed to the virus. Perhaps this pandemic will teach lawmakers about the perils of waiting to act until it is too late. Or maybe it will simply give them a glimpse into a future where everyone and everything is endangered by a threat we will not take seriously until it is already killing us.