An Exclusive Report from Florida, the New Epicenter of COVID-19
By An Anonymous Insider
I live in Florida and I believe in science. I know there are others like me, but many people who aren’t. As the pandemic spreads through the state with terrifying speed, daily life has become challenging and surreal, and not just because of the difficulties of sheltering in place as much as possible.
I am fortunate enough to work from home. With a preexisting condition that makes me highly vulnerable to the coronavirus, I take the common-sense precautions of wearing a mask, washing my hands, using hand sanitizer, not eating in restaurants, not going to bars, ignoring the governor who is desperate to please the President, ignoring the President, who is desperate to be re-elected, and more.
But sometimes the challenges are unavoidable.
Florida is nationally maligned as a place where ridiculous people do ridiculous things, where stupidity reigns and head-shaking events leave others, particularly Northerners, looking down at us. I have long fought this stereotype of my home state, fought the stereotype of owning guns and being a registered Republican. The state offers natural beauty, year-round weather that I love and so much more.
It is getting harder, however, to maintain optimism as the coronavirus not only kills people who could have been saved, but as local politicians and residents ignore and outright deny science to advance their agendas, or promote a culture war or whatever conspiracy theory du jour motivates them.
The reality of this sometimes comes as a knock at your door. Recently I hired a national company to do some work outside my house. When their representative showed up at my door, he was wearing a mask over his mouth and below his nose. (Is this a Florida thing?). He attempted to step into my house.
This type of behavior no longer startles me because it is the norm in this part of Florida. I stepped back, raised a hand for him to stop and asked him to put on his mask.
“I am wearing a mask,” he replied.
“The mask has to be over the mouth and the nose for it to work,” I said. He shot me a disgusted look and then stepped into my house.
I am not a rude person. During normal times I would allow him to come in, even though there is no reason for him to enter. There are not normal times.
“Please step out of my house,” I say. “There’s a virus going around and you don’t need to be inside.”
He is agitated and surly. He is not alone in his position in Florida.
I am in a doctor’s office for an appointment that is unavoidable but I have been assured they are taking all precautions, including letting in only one patient at a time. And that’s true. When I arrive I am the only one.
The receptionist is wearing her mask around her neck. She tells me to sign in.. The sheet is blank and there is one pen, no hand sanitizer, no way to avoid touching a pen that others have clearly touched as it is tethered to the clipboard.
Back in the exam room, the nurse is not wearing a mask. I ask her why not. She replies that it’s dangerous to wear one all day and breathe in carbon dioxide. Her boss, the doctor, is an extremely well-educated man, who went to a top-tier medical school. I ask her if she believes in the efficacy of masks for preventing the spread of coronavirus, especially considering that this practice is filled with high-risk people. She strings together a disjointed sentence: “America…coronavirus…you people…will give it to you.”
I have no idea what fragmented thought is behind this and finally ask her to put on a mask. She does so reluctantly.
People in West Palm Beach are protesting. It is their constitutional right to not wear a mask. I used to bet on sporting events a fair amount. I would push all my chips to the center of the table on this bet: not one of them has ever read the Constitution and has no idea what it says or means.
A woman says she has a mask in her pocket but won’t wear it because it is her right to not have to do what the government tells her. The epidemic is swelling to headline-making proportions, putting the state as the U.S. epicenter. Her mask is in her pocket.
For every viral video you have seen of an enraged non-mask wearing Costco customer or maskless shoppers turned violent, there are hundreds if not thousands of more people espousing the same “philosophy” of freedom, of constitutional protections. I encounter many of these people on the infrequent occasions I must venture out.
In one store, the line is long to check out because they have not staffed the store properly. Again, masks are worn under the nose. The store has a policy that you can’t come in without wearing a mask. Once inside, though, many simply drop the mask around their neck.
I live in the part of the state where Democrats dominate. But there are plenty of Trump supporters and many who believe the government is trying to control their lives. (“Are you Trumpers?!” one friend happily exclaimed after not seeing me for years, pre-pandemic. My wife and I blanched: no, we are appalled by him, we explained. The rest of the evening did not go well.)
A long, long time ago, Florida was a state ruled by Democrats. Walkin’ Lawton Chiles was a revered political figure and governor. But the 1990s brought impactful demographic changes and Republicans have ruled the state since then, helped along by the ineptitude of the Democratic party (see, e.g., nominating Andrew Gillum, in the middle of an ethics investigation, for governor). As a moderate Republican in the southern part of the state, the politics were not intrusive or divisive on a regular basis in my life, for the most part.
Now Governor Ron DeSantis has changed that. He and other politicians and many of my neighbors deny the scope of the healthcare emergency, parrot Trump that more testing means more positive results, and in Trumpian fashion blame the media for whipping up hysteria.
I know two people who have died of coronavirus. I know many others who have contracted it, suffered, and survived. I don’t know anyone who has died of the flu.
My wife and I no longer watch DeSantis’ briefings. He has left us on our own. Packed bars have led to an explosion of cases. The belief that only old people were dying from coronavirus (as if that were okay) has been exploded by the new statistics showing how many younger people are infected. And still the governor, the self-proclaimed defender of liberty, does nothing, enacts no restrictions, leaves it to local mayors to create ordinances, which many people routinely ignore because no one wants to step on your freedoms, guaranteed by this great country.
I know a person who once knocked on our neighbors’ door at 11 p.m. to yell at them and tell them they were making too much and violating the local noise ordinance. That same person is ignoring a county mandate to wear a mask.
Constitutional freedoms are a movable feast.
Florida remains the place that elicits head-shaking disbelief from much of the rest of the country. We like our guns. We don’t want to wear masks. We have elected Republican governors like DeSantis who take a narrow margin of victory and act as if it were an overwhelming mandate from the people. (Sound familiar?) We protest any attempt to take away our freedom, enjoy no state taxes, have beaches packed with people during the pandemic because of our governor’s inability to protect us from others. We are intolerant of people who try to take away our freedoms.
People have told me Fauci is lying. People have told me the media is pumping up the story so Trump doesn’t get re-elected. People have told me that vaccines cause autism. Some of these people hold advanced degrees. Some are doctors. All are Floridians.
When the pandemic was growing but before it hit its current stage, my neighbors had a party. There were approximately 50 people in a house that is rented out as an Airbnb. DeSantis had recently signed an executive order limiting Airbnb operations but when I read it, the order was so toothless that it basically prohibited nothing.
I tracked down the owner of the Airbnb, a local realtor and told him it wasn’t acceptable. I expected hostility and instead he apologized profusely and said he was going to the house to talk to the renters and warn them they would be kicked out.
I was stunned.
I know many of you are watching the situation in Florida spiral out of control and making the usual Florida jokes. We know how people in the north feel about people in the south.
It is true that we are a state divided, a state where politicians worry more about the economy than lives, where individuals believe they have a freedom to possibly endanger others rather than simply wear a mask. We are a state with a failing school system that has produced more than one generation of people eager to believe in conspiracy theories rather than study and evaluate the science of a virus that is killing us. We are a state that has not invested in its poor, its homeless, its children, its education system and now we are watching this failure play out on the national stage.
But if you live in a state like New York where you have apparently flattened the curve, don’t be so quick to shake your head at us. I lived in Manhattan for a time and every day I walked past homeless people sitting or sleeping or laying on the sidewalk. Some were drunk, some were mentally ill, some were people who simply had been discarded. Every day New Yorkers briskly walked past these people, not looking, not noticing, concentrating only on where they were going. And every day I walked past homeless people, I felt a little more of my humanity ebb from my body.
So before America make its Florida jokes and shakes its head in disbelief at how the virus is raging out of control here, everyone should look around and see the country that we all have helped build, where fear of change and ignorance define a large part of the population, where lack of quality education has helped build a culture that has allowed a frenzied and phony “culture war” over masks to erupt.
Take a good look at us in Florida, because we are you.
The writer has asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons.