Mid to late March, as COVID-19 pandemic fears spread, public health officials warned of a devastating wave of infections that could imperil Florida’s large senior population, reports WSJ in today’s front-page story (abridged).
But so far, the state seems to have dodged that fate, despite not following advice to impose measures such as an early, blanket lockdown to minimize spread.
Maybe Lucky and Smart
With the state preparing to start reopening on Monday, epidemiologists and others are asking: What happened? Was Florida smart or lucky?
Lockdown Kept in Local Hands
Florida Governor DeSantis did place state-wide restrictions on visitation to nursing homes, but he left lockdown decisions to local authorities.
Mayors in some hard-hit large communities shut down faster and more aggressively than the state, gaining valuable time.
In the Florida Keys, for example, where roughly 80% of business is from tourism, local authorities mandated closure of all hotels and guesthouses by 22 March, effectively sending tourists home and shutting down commerce in the Keys.
Low Density and Subtropical Climate Helped
A key factor, many say, is a change in the behavior of Floridians. Though the governor didn’t impose a statewide stay-at-home order until April 3, people began hunkering down en masse in mid-March, according to firms that analyze anonymous cellphone data.
Florida announced its first two confirmed cases of Covid-19 on March 1. Mr. DeSantis declared a state of emergency on March 9, when there were 12 cases, including the first two deaths.
According to researchers, even with the low number of recorded cases, between 1,000 and 10,000 Florida residents likely already had Covid-19.
“Extensive immediate action is required,” the researchers wrote. Their recommendation, according to the WSJ, included canceling large events and implementing remote work and schooling. Failure to act quickly could result in more than 1,000 deaths over the following month, they warned.
Governor DeSantis resisted recommendations by public-health experts to issue a statewide stay-at-home order or close the beaches, which were starting to fill with spring-break revelers. Instead, he chose to take a targeted approach aimed at the hardest-hit counties and to defer to local officials on implementing restrictions.
Unlike NYC, One Size Does Not Fit All
A large state like Florida, where many counties were far less affected by the outbreak and would suffer economic pain from a lockdown, doesn’t lend itself to a uniform strategy, he said in news conferences in March.
Early Targeted Measures
- 11 March, the governor began placing limits on who could visit nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, where outbreaks could prove especially deadly.
- 15 March, the Florida Division of Emergency Management cut off virtually all visitations to eldercare facilities.
- 20 March 20, by barring nonessential elective procedures at hospitals, beds were freed to accommodate a potential surge of cases. Throughout the pandemic, roughly 40% of beds statewide have been available, according to state data.
- 1 April, bowing to public pressure, Mr. DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order, effective 3 April.
- 3 April, much of the state already had been buttoned up for weeks.
Balmy Weather Slows Coronavirus Spread?
Though work is still preliminary, several studies suggest that the coronavirus doesn’t spread as easily in balmy weather. On April 23, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued early research findings indicating that increased temperatures may help kill the virus and reduce transmission.
Public Transit Limited in Florida
Apart from a handful of urban cores, Florida counties in general are less densely populated than those in hard-hit parts of the Northeast and Midwest. The landscape is replete with neatly spaced housing tracts. Residents rely mainly on cars to get around and public-transit options are limited.
In another study (not yet peer-reviewed): the virus thrives in weather patterns of moderate humidity and temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.