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Yankee, Stay Home

then-Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis speaks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference.
photo of Ron DeSantis by Gage Skidmore

Governors in more than a dozen states have ordered or strongly advised their residents to stay at home, according to a running count by The Wall Street Journal. But only one – my own Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – has told residents of another state to keep away.

The state DeSantis singled out for ostracism is the very one where I am riding out the COVID-19 storm: New York. The Empire State also happens to be the place where I was born, though I abandoned it for Florida’s sunnier climes well over a decade ago. So while New Yorkers may read Florida’s message as “Yankee, stay home,” for me it is a bit more like DeSantis has locked the front door, turned out the lights and pulled in the welcome mat.

Of course, it isn’t personal. DeSantis, to the best of my knowledge, is unaware of my existence. He certainly does not care where I choose to socially distance myself or shelter in place. But if I were to hop on a flight back to my home in Fort Lauderdale (assuming I could still find one), my governor demands that I self-quarantine in my downtown apartment for at least two weeks. There were some reports yesterday that DeSantis planned to increase the isolation period to three weeks in a new executive order that he intended to release today. This order to self-isolate is notwithstanding the fact that I started working from home (in Fort Lauderdale) a full three weeks ago, caught a flight to New York on March 6 for what was supposed to be a two-week visit before a lengthy business trip, and have confined myself to a house in Westchester County almost the entire time since.

DeSantis is not alone in wanting New Yorkers to distance themselves from their fellow Americans. Members of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force also appealed yesterday for anyone who has recently been in New York City to self-isolate for at least two weeks before leaving the metropolitan area.

New York, sadly, got behind the curve of the coronavirus pandemic. In those first days after I arrived, people were still crowding the subways and commuter trains, dining in Manhattan’s jam-packed restaurants (where floor space is dispensed more sparingly than caviar) and filling Broadway theaters. Partly thanks to the intransigence of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city’s public school system stayed open longer than it should have. As I write this, New York accounts for fully half the country’s diagnosed COVID-19 cases and nearly one-third of its fatalities. Although the pandemic reached the West Coast in Washington and California first, and got its New York foothold in suburban Westchester just a few miles from where I am writing this, the city has become the nation’s current locus of the disease.

So DeSantis is not wrong to cast a wary eye on New Yorkers traveling from their less-than-balmy hot spot to Florida. But his logic is flawed, and his resulting executive orders and other policy decisions are deeply misguided half-measures as a result.

DeSantis blames the strict lockdown policies that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has imposed for sending what he considers a flood of New Yorkers into his state, which DeSantis himself has allowed to become a beacon of viral nonchalance. The same day that he issued his first executive order aimed at New Yorkers and their tri-state area neighbors, DeSantis noted that he didn’t see the need to order Floridians to stay home. So to the extent the governors’ different approaches are driving New Yorkers southward, it is not Cuomo who is to blame – it is DeSantis.

South Florida is the part of the state that is most closely tied to New York, culturally and economically. DeSantis has not acted with strong statewide measures beyond closing bars and restaurant dining rooms, as well as closing entertainment venues, though only in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Yesterday, he reiterated “guidance” from the state’s surgeon general that Floridians age 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions self-isolate, but DeSantis continues to resist widespread restrictions. Local officials have gone much further in closing businesses, parks and beaches, as well as restricting gatherings. But their powers are more limited than the governor’s. At the same time, the insouciance of some of my Florida neighbors comes with a healthy dose of ingenuity (not to mention various high-proof beverages).

Last weekend, with the beaches closed, thousands of South Floridians tossed caution to the tropical breezes. They climbed into their boats and gathered on the sandbars around the greater Miami area for a vast open-air block party. The party-goers lashed their boats together (a tactic called rafting), shed their outerwear and behaved as if it were any other weekend in our region’s nearly endless summertime.

Local officials, aghast, hastened to shut down marinas and banned recreational boating. DeSantis did nothing except blame New Yorkers for hauling themselves to his state. Most urban New Yorkers don’t know their sterns from their rudders, though. They were not the ones packing into the watery shallows.

It is a safe bet that many southbound New Yorkers wanted to be near aged relatives who are, for the most part, trapped in the state’s elder care facilities, which have already seen some tragic results from COVID-19 infections. Now DeSantis is telling worried boomers that if they fly to his state to be near their parents, they need to self-quarantine for several weeks even if, like me, they have effectively been self-quarantined before traveling (which obviously breaks the quarantine in varying degrees, depending upon the mode of transport). Staying with Florida-based relatives in their home is explicitly not allowed.

DeSantis is evidently worried enough about the situation to ask Trump to declare Florida a major disaster area. But, as of this writing, he is still not worried enough to demand that his state’s residents stay at home.

There are plenty of Floridians who think DeSantis should be acting more aggressively and decisively statewide to limit the spread of the virus and, as everyone now understands, to flatten the curve of the disease cycle. I fear the state will pay a heavy price for its failure to learn from the experience of others. Still, I recognize that Florida is an extremely varied place, geographically and culturally. The urban metropolis of South Florida is very different from the small, historic city of St. Augustine and surrounding St. Johns County. It, in turn, is quite different from the rural pinelands of Levy County that stretch inland from the marshy corner of the Gulf of Mexico that we call the Big Bend. As governor of all of it, DeSantis is understandably concerned about imposing one-size-fits-all mandates. But he still could be doing a lot more. I fear the time will soon come when he will wish he had.

I am not the only one, either. A group of more than 75 health care professionals issued a letter to the residents of Miami-Dade County this week, begging them to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously. “One of the most insidious aspects of this epidemic is that it draws strength from people’s skepticism and feeling of invulnerability,” the letter said, according to the Miami Herald. The tone offers a striking contrast to DeSantis’ inaction, at least directed at Floridians.

Meanwhile I remain in New York, in large part to be near my own mother, who resides in New Jersey. She still lives independently, and the only person who has visited her for the past several weeks is me. I have made brief weekly stops to restock her refrigerator and refill her prescriptions. She is far safer in her apartment than she would be anywhere else, as long as I keep myself isolated from the disease and minimize my contact with her. If she were in Florida and I lived in New York, DeSantis’ demands for my own self-quarantine would be a burden both great and unfair – especially while he tolerates the locals’ waterborne carousing.

I hope DeSantis will take this as a report from the field: The virus is already well established in Florida, just as it was in New York when I arrived. You now face much more of an internal challenge than an external threat, and traveling New Yorkers are not your big problem. Pay attention to what happened up north, or you won’t need any unwelcome Yankees to bring it home to us Floridians.

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