On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially categorized Covid-19 as a pandemic. This designation confirmed the anxieties of many at the time – primarily, that life was about to fundamentally change. The realities imposed by the spread of the virus also highlighted the significance of the nation’s federalized structure, as state officials chose disparate paths with vast consequences for the lives and livelihoods of their constituents. So-called “red states” predominantly chose to aggressively reopen businesses and society, hoping to minimize economic damage by taking on the risk of more cases. Democrat-run states did the opposite, closing most nonessential businesses and restricting the ones that did open. While open states have been consistently shamed for sacrificing their citizens for economic gain, such criticism ignores the unavoidable negatives of both approaches. Far from the hyperbolic claims of freedom versus safety, the true issue of restrictions is when the cure becomes worse than the disease. For too many states across the nation, it already has.
One year and over 500,000 deaths after the pandemic declaration, we now have sufficient hindsight to assess the pros and cons of each approach. The natural comparison is New York versus Florida. These two states have similar population sizes and opposite approaches to the pandemic. Their respective governors, Andrew Cuomo and Ron DeSantis, gained national profiles for their approach to the pandemic. Cuomo’s press conferences, in which he stressed the importance of maintaining stringent regulations for the greater good, became must-watch TV in the eyes of millions. He received an Emmy and the deeply bizarre term “Cuomosexual” became part of the lexicon of his most die-hard believers. DeSantis, meanwhile, won plaudits from the right and criticism from the left. A lawyer dressed as the Grim Reaper made national news for protesting DeSantis’ decision to open beaches early in the pandemic. To this day, those who favor lockdowns and other restrictions view Florida as a symbol for sacrificing lives to avoid economic troubles. On the right, DeSantis may be the most popular politician not named Trump. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), DeSantis won the presidential straw poll (excluding Trump) with 43 percent of the vote. The next highest finisher, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, earned just 11 percent.
Governor Cuomo’s recent scandals, including allegations that he covered up nursing home deaths and abused his staff, have tarnished his image as a national symbol for the Democrats. Nevertheless, the comparison between the states run by these two prominent figures remains valid. In February, Politifact posted a fact check against right-wing claims that New York’s approach led to both worse economic and political outcomes. They noted that Florida avoided the initial outbreak and that Florida’s hospitals were able to learn lessons about Covid-19 treatment from New York’s spring 2020 struggles. Critics have countered that Florida has a substantial senior citizen population, the demographic most impacted by Covid-19, and is negatively impacted by high out-of-state travel. Significantly, while Politifact’s article stated that red states “recovered 35 percent more jobs than blue states,” those jobs came at a cost of “99 percent more Covid-19 cases and 78 percent more deaths per recovered job than blue states.” The same report showed that Florida suffered 50 cases per 100 jobs recovered, a tally far worse than New York’s 19.
The tradeoff is undeniable. While Florida’s 149 deaths per 100,000 ranks 26th in the nation, their choice to prioritize individual freedom over collective safety undoubtedly raised those numbers. New York has 252 per 100,000, the second-highest count behind New Jersey. Additionally, Florida has been fertile ground for B117, a more contagious mutation of Covid-19. The state is believed to have the highest concentration of such cases in the nation. That said, the benefits of Florida’s policies, both tangible and intangible, have often been overlooked by the state’s critics. While iconic New York restaurants close, Florida’s Open Table reservations are at 97 percent of prepandemic levels. While those jobs may have come at a cost, 35 percent better job recovery is a substantial figure that should not be overlooked. Nor should the emotional impact of facing economic repercussions from government orders meant to protect the population be discounted.
More significant is the mental health and educational benefits of Florida’s approach. Over the course of the pandemic, social isolation and the stress of the crisis drastically harmed the nation’s mental health. A Kaiser Family Foundation report found that 56 percent of young adults aged 18-24 have reported “symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder.” A quarter of that same group has reported substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. The general population has also suffered. Four in 10 people reported new symptoms of anxiety and depression, multiplying the previous years total by four. While there is no hard data yet that Florida’s mental health fared better, it is reasonable to infer that the circumstances bringing about these issues (social isolation and economic stress) would be alleviated by their laissez-faire approach. Nevertheless, the increased anxiety from those working in public-facing industries or personally impacted by the virus may offset that positive impact.
School reopening approaches are also an important difference between the two states. Public schools in New York, particularly in New York City, have been largely remote this past year, despite studies showing that schools are safe to open in person. In Florida, Governor DeSantis required schools to reopen and remain open, allowing concerned parents to opt out. Zoom is a wholly inadequate substitute for in-person learning, as any student on Brown’s campus and in schools across the nation surely understands. Worse, closing public schools may increase wealth inequality, as private schools reopen while poor children often struggle with the resources required to learn online. A Brookings Institute report on this loss of education placed the future earnings cost of remote learning at $10 trillion. Furthermore, the future negative impact of a generation deprived of their best opportunity to learn how to socialize for over a year is incalculable.
To augment their laid-back approach, Florida has challenged the status quo in distributing the vaccine. Their system is relatively open, as the government prioritized the elderly due to their relatively high risk of hospitalization and/or death. New York has been more restrictive, opening vaccines to specific at-risk demographics and professions. While Florida has faced long lines and logistical challenges in administration, they currently outpace New York on distribution, having administered 500,000 more shots as of early March.
Ultimately, the question of New York versus Florida depends on perspective. No figure can truly contain the value of a human life, and we have collectively lost an unthinkable number in the past year. That said, the persistent anger toward Florida among those who have faced severe restrictions this past year seems misplaced. The nature of the pandemic requires choices between undesirable options. New York and Democrat-run states like it attempted to minimize deaths. Florida chose to minimize economic damage. Neither may be right, but Florida is certainly not wrong.
Image via Flickr (Florida Guidebook)