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Florida Reopens

sign on a barricade that reads 'No Thru Traffic, Open Streets, Restaurants.
New York City, Sept. 20, 2020. Photo by Billie Grace Ward, licensed under CC BY.

Florida is officially open for business. New York, the nation’s undisputed business capital, not so much.

The risks and benefits of our federal system of government have seldom been so vividly on display. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has embraced a new normal of indefinite duration. It is one in which the state’s COVID-19 caseload, while considerably lower than its early summer peak, is still among the highest in the nation. We are still losing around 100 lives per day in Florida and logging a couple of thousand new daily cases, although a report on Monday was a good-news outlier. Florida’s current daily positive test rate is slightly below 5%. So far, Florida has seen a bit more than 14,000 fatalities attributable to the pandemic.

Statistically, after a disastrous encounter with the new coronavirus last spring, New York has achieved far more in its efforts to control the disease. Despite an uptick in cases recently in parts of New York City, it is logging fewer than 1,000 new cases and just a handful of deaths each day. Its positive test rate is hovering near or below 1%.

But New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, determined to prevent a resurgence, is keeping a much tighter grip on his state’s public and commercial life. Indoor restaurant dining in New York City is only just resuming at a limit of 25% of capacity; much of the rest of the state is limited to 50%. That limit also applies to office occupancy. The launch of the new school year has been chaotic. Visitors from a rolling list of more than 30 states and territories are subject to a mandatory two-week quarantine when they come to New York.

New York has lost roughly 33,000 lives to COVID-19, most of them in the first three months of cases. I have no doubt it has been a traumatic experience for Cuomo.

Both Cuomo and DeSantis recognize that life must continue during the pandemic, and beyond it. They differ radically in how they approach the trade-offs and in how much discretion they are willing to cede to an increasingly lockdown-weary citizenry.

I ate my last restaurant meal, a sushi lunch near my Fort Lauderdale office, on March 3. I could have dined indoors any time this summer – I have been in the state continuously since May – but I did not, and would not. My age makes me more vulnerable than my millennial friends and neighbors. So I avoid restaurants, do most of my shopping online, and stay at my vacation home (since I am lucky enough to have one) rather than in my high-rise apartment building downtown.

DeSantis has made my safety precautions my responsibility. Some of my apartment-building neighbors, taking similar precautions, have scarcely ventured outside in six months. Our choices to protect ourselves this way do not require the entire city or state to stay in lockdown along with us.

Cuomo is not so much of a delegator. He also weighs the costs and benefits of mandatory strictures differently than DeSantis, a product both of recent pandemic experience and of political and personal philosophy.

DeSantis’ approach is apt to produce higher case counts and, at least to some degree, higher fatalities than if he maintained more stringent measures for longer periods of time. Unquantifiable, but equally certain, are the non-COVID costs that such measures entail. Disrupted educations, lost jobs, ruined businesses, depression and domestic violence all carry their own costs, and they are far from trivial.

Florida’s unemployment rate in August was 7.4%. New York’s was 12.5%. There is an incalculable but vast amount of misery avoided in keeping Florida’s level from matching New York’s. It is perfectly fair to note that Florida has had more pandemic disease and death this summer than New York, but only if we keep the nonpandemic price of the latter’s tighter strictures in mind, too.

Virtually all state and local governments have taken a significant financial hit from the pandemic. But Florida came into the current fiscal year with a $4 billion surplus. That’s enough to cover the $3.4 billion revenue shortfall that state forecasters computed in August. This does not include $5.8 billion in uncommitted federal coronavirus relief funds – which the state may or may not be able to use to plug general revenue gaps, depending on future legislation – nor the $177 million overperformance in taxes that the state collected last month, compared to the most recent projections. DeSantis’ relaxation and a generally improving economic outlook makes the state’s budget situation look manageable.

New York’s situation, on the other hand, is dire. The shortfall just in the current fiscal year – which is half over – is an estimated $14.5 billion. This does not count additional multibillion-dollar gaps in funding for New York City and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Cuomo and state lawmakers have a deer-in-the-headlights look as they hope for a federal bailout. But that now seems unlikely before the election, and also unlikely to come close to bridging the state’s fiscal gap when it does arrive. New York does not even know how many of its crucial high-income taxpayers it will lose to Florida and other jurisdictions, where many have fled to wait out the pandemic in greater physical and fiscal comfort. Some may not return.

How many illnesses and lives is it worth to let life resume more or less as normal? The answer can’t be zero, or else none of us would ever get out of bed. It can’t be “as many as it takes,” either. Some prices are just too big to pay. Between those two points, reasonable minds can differ – as can governors.

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