Florida seems to have done a relatively good job of containing the coronavirus pandemic. Recent reporting has highlighted the lower death rates in the region and the fact that it is likely more people died in New York nursing homes than statewide in Florida. Governor Ron DeSantis has taken credit for these successes and has gone out of his way to defend himself against claims of early mismanagement.
There’s a plausible case to be made for such credit-taking. Over 20 percent of Florida’s residents are over 65, a group that has borne the brunt of serious illness and death across the country. DeSantis ran a risk by not shutting down early, and he appears to have avoided a disaster.
What’s missing from this narrative are the actions of heavily populated Florida counties. DeSantis didn’t really need to order a lockdown because it was done for him for much of the population. Miami-Dade (March 20), Broward (March 23), and other counties issued stay-at-home orders before the state. Miami-Dade’s shuttering of nonessential businesses preceded New York City’s. It took until April 1 for DeSantis to issue a statewide lockdown. At the peak of spring break fever, Miami Beach (March 15), Fort Lauderdale (March 15), Tampa (March 18), and Naples (March 18) all closed their beaches. DeSantis did not order the beaches closed instead limiting gatherings on beaches to 10 people on March 17. By the time the statewide order in Florida was issued in April, 60 percent of cases were in the places that had already been locked down, a regional containment within the significantly delayed statewide containment.
Standing behind the actions of Florida government were the decisions and behaviors of Floridians themselves. Elected officials may have hesitated, but the people of Florida did not. They stayed home in droves before they were required to — either by DeSantis or by their local governments. By the time DeSantis’ shutdown order was active, a review of cell phone data shows almost half of the counties in the state had already seen drops of around 50 percent in median movement for around two weeks. By April 1, the big counties in South Florida basically ground to a complete halt.
Does DeSantis deserve credit? A local government enthusiast might argue he does for letting counties operate without unnecessary interference by state government. A cynic might say that DeSantis avoided heat from the business community and let the counties take the flack instead. The real truth is that before government on every level acted — not just in Florida but around the country — the American people took matters into their own hands to stay home and stay safe.