As Florida surpasses 100,000 cases of COVID-19, our reporter looks at some of the politics and factors around the surge.

Florida is no stranger to massive disasters as its communities, and hurricanes often ravage iconic beaches. Yet, the scale of the COVID-19 Pandemic which has impacted every county in Florida is unprecedented. The political stakes are also high.

Florida’s Department of Health reported its highest single day totals for the virus in the past week with many feeling that the state could be headed to be a new hotspot for the virus.

The new cases Florida governor Ron De Santis gave a rare Saturday press conference to tackle mounting concerns head-on De Santis argued that Florida is doing much better in battling the virus then the soaring numbers suggest. De Santis suggests many of those testing positive now are asymptomatic young people. Over 1.6 million tests having been conducted in the state since March with the positive rate currently registering at 6.2% — though it has ranged from 4% to 12% in recent weeks.  World Health Organization guidelines suggest a positive test rate of no more then 5% or lower for 14 days before re-opening.
 


 
 De Santis side-stepped suggestions he issue a state-wide order for facemask noting such a order would be difficult to enforce but, has pledged to re-double efforts to enforce social distancing measures at bars.
 
Florida’s response to the virus is increasingly a national issue with the Florida governor engaging in a war of words with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo since the crisis began. The New York governor, in conjunction with Connecticut and New Jersey is considering enacting a 14 day quarantine on travellers arriving from Florida. Florida already has imposed such a ban on travellers from New York who visit the state.

A large number of travellers to the state (not just from New York of course) have contributed to Florida’s susceptibility to the virus. The state has the unusual reputation of a playground for college students on Spring Break, an affordable theme-park centred destination for families from around the globe, and above all a retirement home for the elderly. Florida is of course the legendary home of the Fountain of Youth but, for decades the state has attracted retirees seeking out sunny weather and lower taxes. Today the state is home to 21 million people. Roughly 20.5% percent of the state’s population is over 65. That figure does no likely include thousands of ‘snowbirds’ a term used to refer to elderly Americans and Canadians who come to Florida seasonally to avoid the cold weather in other jurisdictions.

“A disease that is deadly to the elderly and easily spread by the young has left Florida especially vulnerable,” warned a New York Times editorial earlier. Elsewhere Florida was described as an “uber-Italy” according to Business Insider in March due to the State’s demographics.  Italy is home to 60 million people with some 23% of Italy’s population over the age of 65.

 
So far that prediction luckily has not come true if published numbers can be trusted. Deaths from the virus in America’s greyest state are over 3,1000. Italy has lost over 34,000 the overwhelming majority of whom were elderly.  
 
Next month, Major League Soccer is planning to resume with a tournament being played at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The National Basketball Association (NBA) had also planned to launch a similar monastery league with players restricted to golf and restaurant facilities at the resort complex when play resumes in July. The NBA is also suggesting a new electronic smart ring can serve as an early warning for the virus. The rings will be the closet many NBA players get to a championship ring this season but, some won’t even get that far. Only 22 of the NBA’s 30 teams have been invited to the tournament in part to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
 
Why Florida’s numbers are spiking now remains unclear however, though many are quick to say the governor’s move to re-open the state was premature and a contributing factor.
 

Scythe on the Beach

 
Death stalked Florida’s beaches at the beginning of May. Wearing a full Grim Reaper costume with a scythe, Daniel Uhlfelder, walked some of Florida’s beach’s as De Santis cleared the way for some beaches to reopen in late April. In Miami Beach and elsewhere beaches remained closed.
 
“Today, I began touring Florida as the Grim Reaper to remind Floridians of the importance that we stay home and protect one another. This is just the beginning. Thank you for the support received from all over the world,” he tweeted on May 2nd.
 
Other moves included the planting of mock cemeteries on beaches or handing out of free body bags to beachgoers. Such tactics were designed to ensure Floridians never lost sight of their invisible enemy. These creative guerrilla marketing tactics received much attention but, may have had little impact. The community of Coco Beach had to remove some 13,000 pounds of garbage littered on the beach by visitors soon after re-opening.

By Memorial Day Weekend things were in full swing with businesses who spoke to The Investigative Journal saying they had seen stronger sales then the previous Memorial Day Weekend. Daytona and other famous beaches were backed not just with Floridians but, with thousands of visitors from surrounding states as well.

The removal of a Florida Department of Health Data science, Rebekah Jones, has added to the controversy. While the scientists claim she drew the ire of the government’s office for challenging official statistics, the De Santis has pointed out that the woman is facing an investigation for unrelated cyberstalking and sexual harassment.

After her termination, Jones raised nearly $200,000 to launch a website to publish COVID-19 data.  She continues to draw attention to several irregularities in Florida’s COVID-19 reporting. According to her data only one of Florida’s county’s meet the state’s requirements for re-opening.

De Santis has sought a middle path in his handling of the crisis. He has let many communities go their own way – a result that has been infuriating to many on both sides of the political spectrum.

DeSantis received criticism for his belated shelter in place order which went into effect only on April 3rd. Yet, DeSantis’ request came after many country’s had already issued their stay at home orders. However, the governor’s order included a provision to allow churches to remain open despite the shelter in place order. The move came after local authorities and some local religious leaders clashed over the best possible response to the virus.

“Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne said he wouldn’t close the doors of his Tampa, Florida, megachurch until the End Times begin. The police weren’t willing to wait that long,” wrote CNN in its coverage of one forced closure of a Florida church in late March.

Populous Miami-Dade County and Fort Lauderdale enforced some of Florida’s most sweeping lockdown measures in response to the virus including the closure of nightclubs, bars, theatres, and other entertainment venues. Restaurants were only left open for takeout service. The Florida Keys, an island chain popular with tourists, was protected by a blockade to prevent non-residents from entering. Now just a few weeks after re-opening many of those same venues are now closing their doors.
 

The Purple State

 
On election night in November, cable news anchors will compete with one another to color-in electronic maps of the America’s 50 states either Republican Red or Democratic Blue. The Sunshine State, home to 21 electoral votes, will shine more brightly then most
 

The 2020 presidential election will likely be in some part a referendum on Trump’s administration and handling of the Corona virus and perhaps increasingly the protest movement that emerged in the middle of it.

 
COVID-19 is linked to ongoing global protests against police brutality and racism in some intriguing ways. Breonna Taylor, who was shot nine times while sleeping in her own home, was an EMT and on the frontline of the response to COVID-19. An autopsy of George Floyd after his murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police revealed he had COVID-19. Floyd had lost his job as a bouncer at a nightclub due to the Corona virus. Propagandists in China (where the virus is believed to have originated) have use Twitter to spread misinformation over both the protests and COVID-19 in an effort to heighten social tensions in America. Finally, the massive protests around the world in response to their death, experts warn, could help spread COVID-19.
 
Florida is almost unique in the sense that it is neither true blue or really red. It is a true “purple” battleground state where elections between America’s two dominant parties are closely decided. The U.S. presidential election in Florida in 2000 was so close it was decided by the fate of a few hundred votes after a U.S. Supreme Court decision and the famed “Brooks Brothers riot” in Miami-Dade County Florida.
 
The 2018 gubernatorial election was decided by a mere 34,000 votes in 2018. The eventual winner a Congressmen and former veteran was Ron De Santis.
 

His campaign fulling embraced the “America First” rhetoric of President Donald Trump even refusing to return funds from a donor who once called former President Barrack Obama a “Muslim n***** on Twitter.

However, since the election De Santis has ruled largely as moderate even embracing the cause of protecting Florida’s Everglades and pardoning the Groveland Four. Elected when he was not yet 40 he could well have his eye on the national stage.
 
Indeed, its not all been negative news coverage of Florida in recent months. International attention turned to Florida in late March with the first launch of astronauts from the United States since 2011. The launch conducted jointly between NASA and Space X. The flight was a historic occasion — the first ever crewed space launch operated by a commercial provider.
 
If licenses plates can be trusted, people flocked from as far away from Pennsylvania and Virginia to Cape Canaveral to watch the joint Space X launch with the NASA. Thousands of cars and hundreds of boats flocked to watch the historic launch.
 
The launch also proved the occasion for President Trump’s first visit to Florida since a meeting in early March with President Bolsanaro of Brazil at Mar-a-Largo in which President Trump met a Brazilian official who later tested positive for the virus. Later this summer President Donald Trump will accept the Republican nomination for president in Jacksonville, Florida. The convention was originally scheduled for North Carolina but, was moved when organizers balked at COVID-19 related restrictions imposed on the event.  
 
For the Space X launch many traditional parks and viewing points remained closed. While some entrepreneurial business owners charged visitors some $30 for parking.  Tens of thousands more found free viewing spots along bridges, roads and waterways. Minutes before the launch a virtual flotilla of private boats and yachts rushed toward the launch from all directions. Everywhere people peered into the sky. A few who waded into the brackish waters near Cape Canaveral for a better look. Few seemed to worry about the alligators and the occasional shark found in these waters. Few wore facem asks.

Joseph Hammond
Joseph Hammond

Joseph Hammond is a journalist and fellow with the African Union’s iDove program. He served as Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe in 2011 during the Arab Spring. In 2013, Hammond embedded with M23 rebels in the Eastern Congo becoming one of the last journalists to do so before that group’s rout by United Nations forces. Hammond’s work has been published by The Economist, Forbes, Slate, Christian Science Monitor, International Business Times, Monocle, Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown (CNN), U.S. News and World Report, Deutsche Welle (Qantara), and other publications. He on the advisory board member of several organizations including the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives. He was a Fulbright Public Policy fellow with the government of Malawi. He has also completed fellowships and leadership programs with the Commonwealth of Nations, National Endowment for Democracy, Atlantic Bruecke, National Endowment for Democracy, the Atlantic Council of the United States, International Center for Journalists, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America Foundation and the Policy Center for the New South's Atlantic Dialogue. Follow him on Twitter @TheJosephH

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