As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the United States this past year, the state of Florida experienced steady population growth. Last September, figures reported almost 1,000 new residents were flooding into The Sunshine State every day.
This trend in the middle of a deadly pandemic is anything but surprising. States such as Michigan, New York and California have imposed stringent lockdown measures to contain COVID-19, shattering livelihoods and leaving businesses of all sizes in shambles. By contrast, supporters of Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., argue that he has been able to put livelihoods and businesses first while still protecting his state from the pandemic.
DeSantis’s approach in The Sunshine State, which was initially criticized by Democratic governors and public health experts, has proven to be a significant motivating factor for the rapid population growth across Florida. DeSantis has struck a balance between safeguarding public health and the economy, and Florida has emerged from the latest wave of the virus as one of the strongest states in the nation. Although the state remains in the red zone for uncontrollable spread of COVID-19, critical metrics tell a completely different story. As of Feb. 28, Florida has a lower death toll per capita than 26 other states even though over 20% of Florida residents are 65 or older, an age group that is twice as likely to develop serious illness from the virus. At the same time, Florida has managed to keep its massive economy up and running throughout the pandemic. In December, Florida’s unemployment rate was just 6.1%.
Throughout the past year, DeSantis has taken proper, common-sense action in direct response to the current public health situation. When COVID-19 initially swept across the country last spring, Florida — like most other states — locked down to protect its residents from a virus that experts knew relatively little about at the time. But by early fall, when it was clear experts knew how to curb the spread of the pandemic, Florida removed all of its restrictions on businesses. Since then, while states like Michigan have imposed new rounds of lockdowns, Florida has been open for business.
At first glance, DeSantis’s response to COVID-19 appears irresponsible. Public health experts warned that Florida may become the new epicenter of the pandemic on multiple occasions. But the state has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic and it’s not by chance. While allowing businesses like bars and restaurants to return to full capacity, DeSantis has also aimed to protect vulnerable populations like Florida’s seniors. These efforts have paid off: Even with a fully-functioning economy, Florida’s per-capita death toll is lower than locked-down states like Michigan and New York. Florida’s death toll is still higher than Michigan’s in total, but Florida is also over twice the size of our state by population.
As DeSantis protects businesses and vulnerable populations who are far more likely to experience serious symptoms from COVID-19, Democratic leaders such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have done the opposite. Damning new evidence has shed light on New York’s failure to protect its seniors in nursing homes. At the same time, the state has done an equally bad job of protecting livelihoods. The Wall Street Journal reported that “half of New York City’s nearly 24,000 restaurants and bars could be forced to close permanently because of coronavirus restrictions.”
In the face of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, Michigan has fared no better. A December report found that one-third of Michigan restaurant owners believe they’ll be out of business in the next six months. Allowing restaurants to open at 25% capacity offers little relief. Meanwhile, the picture is no rosier for other industries. Not surprisingly, Michigan suffered more job losses in the month of December than any other state.
These figures demonstrate how heavily COVID-19 lockdowns have weighed on states like Michigan and New York. Instead of protecting populations at risk, shutdowns have punished businesses without definitive long-term public health benefits. Case counts typically rise soon after restrictions are lifted, but damage to businesses can last years or decades. The Sunshine State has taught us that we don’t have to choose between protecting lives and livelihoods; we can do both at the same time. Not relying on lockdowns as Florida has done truly builds a stronger COVID-19 strategy in the long run.
DeSantis’s response to COVID-19 goes far beyond the economy. His state has led the way in reopening schools early on, too. The benefits of opening schools for in-person learning are so clear that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now leading a push to return students back to the classroom even before all teachers have been vaccinated. Conversely, states like Michigan have lagged behind.
Although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has recently taken steps to bring back in-person learning, these actions came far too late. Distance learning has already proven to be detrimental for students, both academically and mentally. Sadly but unsurprisingly, mental illness is surging in communities where schools are still remote. Minorities and students of color are hurt disproportionately when education remains online, exacerbating existing inequities within the United States’ school system.
At the moment, it is clear that dozens of states that have previously embraced lockdowns are at a crossroads. With the spread of new variants of the COVID-19 virus, this pandemic is unfortunately here to stay for the foreseeable future, and it’s likely we will see upticks in cases again. Will our leaders opt for another round of mass shutdowns — a tactic that fails both residents and the economy — or will they finally realize that lives and livelihoods can be protected in tandem? This is a time for true leadership and Florida has risen to meet the challenge. It’s vital other states do the same before they have nothing left.
Evan Stern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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