This brilliant op-ed in the WSJ explains how the facts of what DeSantis did in Florida vindicates him now and it’s long past time for him to get the recognition he deserves:
In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed strict lockdown policies—many still in place—and became the media’s golden boy. “The governor of New York’s morning news conferences have become part of the country’s new daily rhythm,” the Washington Post’s Style section gushed in March 2020. “He’s the strongman who can admit he’s wrong. He speaks fluently about the facts. He worries about his mother, and by extension, yours, too.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis took a different approach and was pilloried. He was among the first to lift his state lockdown, adopting something resembling Sweden’s strategy of protecting the vulnerable while keeping businesses and schools open. “Florida Man Leads His State to the Morgue,” read a June headline in the New Republic. “Ron DeSantis is the latest in a long line of Republicans who made the state a plutocratic dystopia. Now he’s letting its residents die to save the plutocrats.”
A year after the virus hit the U.S., Mr. Cuomo’s luster has faded, and Mr. DeSantis can claim vindication. The Sunshine State appears to have weathered the pandemic better than others like New York and California, which stayed locked down harder and longer.
Mortality data bear out this conclusion. The Covid death risk increases enormously with each decade of age. More than 80% of Covid deaths in the U.S. have occurred among seniors over 65. They make up a larger share of Florida’s population than any other state except Maine. Based on demographics, Florida’s per-capita Covid death rate would be expected to be one of the highest in the country.
Nope. Florida’s death rate is in the middle of the pack and only slightly higher than in California, which has a much younger population. Florida’s death rate among seniors is about 20% lower than California’s and 50% lower than New York’s, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Several Democratic governors, including Mr. Cuomo and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, early in the pandemic required nursing homes to accept Covid patients discharged from hospitals, though many were short-staffed and unable to care for them properly. The New York investigation by Attorney General Letitia James estimated that the state’s nursing home deaths were 50% higher than Mr. Cuomo’s official figures, though it’s impossible to know how many deaths his order caused. The Journal reported Thursday that Mr. Cuomo’s aides rewrote a report by state health officials in June to omit the number of New York nursing-home residents who’d died in hospitals during the pandemic.
Mr. DeSantis took a smarter approach. His administration halted outside visitations to nursing homes and bolstered their stockpile of personal protective equipment. Florida’s government also set up 23 Covid-dedicated nursing centers for elderly patients discharged from hospitals. Nursing-home residents who tested positive and couldn’t be isolated in their facilities were sent to these Covid-only wards. Florida set up field hospitals to handle a surge in cases that models predicted in the spring, although it never materialized.
“Those models about hospital overcrowding never even came close to bearing out, even in New York,” Mr. DeSantis says in an interview. “Some of those policies that were done in these other states, they really were motivated by those models. And those models did do a lot of damage.”
Like most governors, Mr. DeSantis shut down most businesses when President Trump issued guidelines for a national lockdown on March 16. “We did the 15 days to slow the spread,” Mr. DeSantis says. The governor kept restrictions on “nonessential” businesses for several more weeks, but he let more places stay open than other states, including child-care facilities, construction sites, hotels and beaches. National media published photos of crowded Florida beaches. “DeSantis in Florida let everybody go crazy over spring break,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the New York governor’s brother, said in June. “He then exported all that virus back to wherever—wherever they wanted to go, OK?”
But Florida’s infection rate during April stayed on par with California, where most beaches and residential construction were restricted. “I was not convinced that a lot of those [lockdown] policies were making a huge difference as data came in,” Mr. DeSantis says.
Florida began a phased reopening in early May, allowing restaurants, barbershops, nail salons, gyms and other retailers to operate initially at 50% capacity provided they follow social-distancing and sanitary protocols. Bars and pubs were later allowed to open at 50% capacity, and limits for other businesses were increased.
Mr. DeSantis also let theme parks—important Florida employers and tourist attractions—reopen at reduced capacity. SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Studios reopened in June. “Disney World took a little longer, but that was just because of their [own] business decisions.” California’s government still hasn’t allowed the Disneyland or Universal Studios theme parks to reopen.
Florida’s cases started climbing in June as people socialized more, including at graduation parties, summer cookouts and on Father’s Day. Experts and the media castigated the governor for reopening too fast and too soon. “Despite the guidelines and the recommendations to open up carefully and prudently, some states skipped over those and just opened up too quickly,” the National Institutes of Health’s Anthony Fauci said in July. “Certainly Florida I know, you know, I think jumped over a couple of checkpoints.”
But cases spiked across the Sun Belt, including in California, which maintained much stricter business restrictions. Still, political pressure intensified on Mr. DeSantis to shut down his state again. He refused. “I’m like, ‘No, we’re not going to lock down. It doesn’t work. It compounds problems,’ ” he says. The virus is not “going to be governed by simply closing someone’s business, or not letting people go to work.”
Mr. DeSantis says he listened to a different cast of experts such as Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya, Harvard’s Martin Kulldorff and Oxford’s Carl Heneghan and Sunetra Gupta. Instead of shutting down businesses in the summer, he ordered more-frequent testing for nursing-home workers and deployed more personnel to hard-hit hospitals. In late July, cases in Florida and across the Sun Belt began to fall.
THE GREAT REOPENING
In September Mr. DeSantis lifted capacity restrictions on restaurants and bars. He also overrode local jurisdictions that tried to keep them closed. “We said every business has the right to operate; you cannot close anything. Everyone has the right to work. You have to let people earn a living,” he says. Mr. DeSantis also required local school districts to offer in-person instruction five days a week in the fall, though parents could choose remote learning instead. “The union sued us, but we beat them in court.”
Teachers unions in large school districts in California, meanwhile, have refused to return to classrooms. They claim schools are unsafe. But per capita Covid cases among children are about the same in Florida and California.
When cases began to rise again in the fall, Democratic governors like Mr. Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom tightened business shutdowns and even sought to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to 10 people. Mr. Cuomo griped that police weren’t strictly enforcing his household limits.
The fall and winter lockdowns don’t appear to have made any difference in the virus spread. Between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, there were 5.8 new cases per 100 people in New York, 6.4 in California, and only 5 in Florida, where businesses could stay open at full capacity. But the economic impact of the lockdowns has been enormous.
Employment declined by 4.6% in Florida in 2020, compared with 8% in California and 10.4% in New York. Leisure and hospitality jobs fell 15% in Florida, vs. 30% in California and 39% in New York.