Florida and DeSantis Defy Covid-19 and the Critics

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And the pandemic winner is … Florida and its governor, Ron DeSantis.

Can anyone doubt it? As the country tries to recover from the pandemic, psychologically as well as economically, Florida is way ahead of just about every other state in the U.S. As of March, its unemployment rate was 4.7%, compared with New York’s 8.5% and California’s 8.3%. The Census Bureau reports that more than 250,000 people moved to Florida last year, second only to Texas. From all indications, the influx has only accelerated in 2021. 

The reason, of course, is that in Florida, the pandemic is being treated as ancient history. Are Covid-19 victims still dying in Florida? Yes. But the numbers are relatively low: 45 deaths on Wednesday, for instance. More to the point, throughout the pandemic, DeSantis has insisted on keeping the state open for business even as other states locked down for months at a time. DeSantis was one of the last governors to issue a stay-at-home order, which he did only after weeks of unrelenting criticism, and one of the first to reopen. He required that schools remain open in opposition to the teachers unions. (“Closing schools due to coronavirus is probably the biggest public health blunder in modern American history,” he said.) And he forbade local governments from enforcing mask mandates.

DeSantis was vilified in the media, especially when Covid cases spiked last year. (I was among the skeptics after rooting for him earlier.) Many public health officials predicted that his policies would be disastrous. His critics took to calling him #DeathSantis. But they were wrong. For whatever reason, the virus did not flatten Florida the way it did New York, Rhode Island or Arizona. The nation’s third-most populous state ranks 20th in cases per capita and 27th in deaths per capita. Whether DeSantis was adept or merely lucky, the result has been something to brag about. Which, of course, is exactly what he’s been doing.

Economic activity has followed the sound of his voice. At first it was conservatives who were drawn to the state’s laissez faire approach to the pandemic — people who objected not just to mask mandates but to blue state governance more generally. Keith Rabois, the well-known venture capitalist — and Peter Thiel business partner — moved from Silicon Valley to Miami last year. He has since become a proselytizer for Florida. “Lots of people are moving from the Bay Area and escaping jail,” he told an interviewer a few months ago. “Lots of people are moving from New York and improving their lives.” Florida, he added, “is capitalist” — in contrast to his former home, California. (The absence of a state income tax in Florida no doubt helps.)

DeSantis’s pandemic strategy has created something akin to a gold rush atmosphere, as businesses from Spotify to Elliott Management Corp. have opened offices in Florida. There is a sense of optimism, a go-go dynamism that reminds me, as a New Englander, of the tech-driven Massachusetts Miracle when Michael Dukakis was governor. “OK guys, hear me out,” tweeted another Peter Thiel partner, Delian Asparouhov, “what if we move Silicon Valley to Miami?” When Miami’s Republican mayor, Francis Suarez, tweeted, “How can I help?” his tweet received 2.3 million impressions.

For restaurateurs, South Florida has been nirvana. One such restaurant owner is Jeff Zalaznick, a co-founder of the Major Food Group, which operates more than 20 high-end restaurants, 10 of which are in New York. Zalaznick came to Miami for vacation just before New York shut down and never left. The company had planned to open a restaurant in Miami, but the pandemic accelerated those plans.

“Being in Miami caused me to understand how much opportunity there was here, between the obvious demand for great food and great hospitality and the migration that was taking place,” Zalaznick told me. When I asked him whether Florida’s openness during the pandemic also played a role, he laughed. “Of course,” he said. “We opened Carbone in Miami on January 23. On January 23 in New York, you couldn’t eat inside a restaurant.” Zalaznick told the Wall Street Journal that Major Food Group hopes to have 20 restaurants in South Florida by the end of 2022.

“We’re really thinking about Miami and South Florida as our second home base after New York and building out a footprint similar to the one we have in New York City,” Zalaznick said. Several hundred Major Food Group employees, many of whom were collecting unemployment in New York, have moved to Florida to work for the company. Hundreds more are likely to be hired over the next few years.

By now, a certain critical mass has been achieved; transplanted New Yorkers or Californians find themselves able to have in-person meetings with colleagues who have also moved to Florida. Bill Carmody, the head of the New York office for the law firm Susman Godfrey LLP, has been in Miami since January. “I came down here to get access to the same people I had access to in New York,” he says. “I love the energy down here, and the atmosphere — it’s as if the pandemic never happened.” I’ve talked to Democrats who’ve moved to Florida during the pandemic; they give DeSantis almost as much credit as Republicans. One of them told me that when the pandemic first struck, he was convinced the governor’s strategy was crazy. “Now it looks like he’s the one who got it right,” he said.

Which is exactly what DeSantis is likely to tell the nation in 2024 should he run for president. This may seem awfully premature, given that Joe Biden’s presidency is only four months old — and Donald Trump may decide to run again.

But there is no question that DeSantis is hoping to capitalize on Florida’s pandemic record to make the case that his policies, which were embraced by the right and scorned by the left, actually worked. He’ll point to the failure of remote learning in Democratic strongholds, the deaths and hospitalizations in states that insisted that people wear masks outdoors and the closings of thousands of small businesses that resulted from long lockdowns. Like Trump, he wears the criticism from the left like a badge of honor.

DeSantis has also taken political positions aimed at endearing himself to Trump partisans. He championed a voting bill that included many of the same restrictions as the one that passed in Georgia, and then proudly signed it into law earlier this month. He signed a bill banning vaccine passports. He has called for a continuation of Trump’s harsh immigration policies. He has described himself as the head of “the free state of Florida.” In Florida, the criticism has been muted, presumably because people are satisfied with his pandemic results.

It could have turned out much differently, of course. Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota took the same approach as DeSantis; more than 20% of her state’s population caught the virus. Why was South Dakota hit so much harder than Florida? Was it the chance of geography? No one knows definitively yet. In charting Florida’s pandemic course, DeSantis took an enormous gamble. It’s paid off for his state. And for better or worse, it’s paid off for him as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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