Alan Zendell, April 26, 2021
I spent the first twelve months of the COVID pandemic in Maryland, and the most recent two in Florida. Given the craziness of 2020, the public comments by the states’ respective governors, and Trump’s still significant support in Florida, I expected to see a sharp contrast in people’s attitudes and behavior in their response to COVID. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there wasn’t, at least in the purple county where my condo is located.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. My relationship with Florida has been a yoyoing of love and hate for more than five decades. It began on a high note in 1964 when I visited Cape Canaveral to observe a Saturn 1 test firing, but that changed the following year. My next visit began wonderfully – it was my honeymoon in Miami Beach. But three days later, Hurricane Betsy decided to wreck much of southern Florida, turning our honeymoon into a strange tragi-comedy before crossing the Gulf and killing seventy-six people in Louisiana. It continued that way ever since: my brother’s funeral and four more hurricanes, one of which I had to confront three times, being among the low points, and my three grandchildren providing the upside.
Being in Florida for the past two months affected my perspective. Governor DeSantis’ push in 2020 to open the state quickly and ignore CDC’s mask and distancing guidelines so that herd immunity could be achieved through mass infections had horrified me. Likewise, his early voice in the chorus of fake news and denial that the pandemic was real. There was no way I was going to DeSantis’ Florida until my wife and I were both vaccinated.
While I still do not and never will support the callous disregard for human life expressed by both DeSantis and Trump, being here for two months made me see things a little differently. When I left Maryland on February 28th, it was still winter there, and the state was just starting to pull itself out of lockdown. Governor Hogan, one of the few Republican governors to stand up to Trump during the pandemic, managed his state’s response brilliantly. For an entire year, my fellow Marylanders behaved responsibly, following the rules and adapting, thanks to the leadership of Hogan and our County officials (my county in Maryland is also quite purple.)
When I arrived in Florida, winter had miraculously changed to either spring or summer, depending on the day. What a difference! People spent time outdoors, and even those who feared the virus because of pre-existing health concerns could walk on deserted beaches, dine in outdoor restaurants, and resume many of their usual activities. I was pleasantly surprised that stores required and enforced mask-wearing and distancing as scrupulously as they did in Maryland, and the great majority of people observed them. But a disturbing (to me) number of people are willing to eat indoors in crowded restaurants and many still think Trump won the election. More than once, I heard Anthony Fauci referred to as Satan’s messenger, but I convinced one elderly woman who wouldn’t accept vaccination until God told her to, that Fauci was actually God’s messenger, since God was too busy to talk to everyone personally.
Politics aside, I was reminded that Florida’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and the service industries. DeSantis’ concern for the financial health of his state is understandable, if not his disregard for ballooning death counts. I was also reminded that Florida faces much harsher challenges from climate change than most states, and it continues to play a leading role in conservation and mitigation efforts, preserving endangered species and protecting the coastline from rising seas levels. Schools have remained open, with options for virtual or in-person learning, and my masked grandsons never missed a day.
In my ongoing ups and downs concerning Florida, I have to rate this visit a plus. Despite the sharp divisions in our country today, I’m pleased to report that if Marylanders get an A for their response to the pandemic, Floridians deserve a B. My family and friends here stayed healthy and all have been vaccinated. I was concerned when I got here, but not any more.
And yet, as much as I want to end this visit on a positive note, I’ve been here long enough for summer to have arrived with its typical Florida intensity. It’s not Florida’s fault, but though I hate to say goodbye to the kids, I will be ecstatic to leave the heat, mugginess, and mosquitos behind when I head north.