(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Driving to lunch on Wednesday, I turned on South Florida’s public radio station, WLRN. (My family is living in Boca Raton this summer.) The host was interviewing Rebekah Jones, the data scientist who was fired by the Florida Department of Health in mid-May.
Jones had built the department’s coronavirus dashboard, which had been praised for its transparency by no less an authority than U.S. pandemic coordinator Deborah Birx. But as time went on, she became concerned with some of the requests made by her superiors.
As she described it in the radio interview, in late April, with most of the state preparing to reopen, she refused to comply with a demand to manipulate data that would make it appear as though certain counties were closer to meeting key reopening benchmarks than they truly were. (The health department says she was dismissed for “repeated acts of insubordination.”)
After her firing, she says, her husband told her, “What did it change? ... They’re still lying to people.” Thus motivated, Jones started a GoFundMe campaign that raised $170,000 and used the money to build an alternative to Florida’s dashboard. She began posting data a few weeks ago.
Jones’s dismissal and her new dashboard have received a lot of media attention. Her new creation is a marvel, with granular data that is plainly better than the state’s effort.
But that’s not the only reason reporters came knocking on her door. Ever since a handful of Republican governors started reopening their states in early May, critics have crafted a narrative that these governors were acting recklessly by reopening too early. They cared more about pleasing President Donald Trump — who had urged states to reopen — than protecting their citizens from a deadly virus, or so the thesis went.
Jones’s allegation fit right into that narrative. The idea that the state health department was manipulating data to shade reality was all too believable. Wasn’t this exactly the kind of thing a Trump-loving governor like Florida’s Ron DeSantis would do? Of course it was!
In late May, the Daily Beast reported that a conspiracy theory had developed on the left: “Florida is deliberately trying to undercount coronavirus fatalities by labeling them as something else.” Although the DeSantis administration has vehemently denied this, the governor has a knack for making things worse. Just the other day, he changed the way Florida counts available intensive care beds to include not just current ICU availability but also beds that could be converted into ICU units if necessary. His critics leaped on this change as yet another example of his willingness to cook the books.
Most of Florida entered Phase 2 of its reopening in mid-May. Stores, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and bars all opened their doors again — at 50% capacity — after barely a month of lockdown. Tattoo parlors, too. Groups could congregate as long as there were fewer than 50 people. Masks were recommended but not required.
And sure enough — just as the critics had predicted — the number of positive cases started to rise again. Indeed, over the last few weeks, they have climbed rapidly in all the states that opened early. On Thursday, Texas paused its reopening as its hospitals worried about having enough beds for virus patients. But because of DeSantis’s combative tone — and his insistence that Florida’s model for fighting the pandemic was superior to that of blue states like New York — he came in for special opprobrium
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman tweeted: “America’s disastrous pandemic response, in one picture.” The picture was a chart showing Florida’s seven-day average of positive Covid-19 cases:
“DeSantis has lost control of Florida’s Covid-19 response,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat. She accused him of “recklessly reopening Florida despite the data screaming for caution.” Another critic, Florida International University pandemic expert Aileen Marty, described DeSantis as “shooting himself in the foot.” She added, “It is a horrible situation. But he thinks in downplaying the threat of the virus that’s going to help the economy.”
But how dire is the threat to Florida? The answer is that although the increase in positive cases is worrisome, it is far from clear that disaster is right around the corner.
There is no denying that the increase in new positive cases has been setting daily records. On June 1, the Florida health department reported 602 new cases. By June 6, there were 1,400. The daily number kept climbing until it reached 5,472 on Tuesday. In the early part of June, much of the rise was due to a significant increase in testing. But by the middle of the month, the number of daily tests had leveled off — yet the number of positive cases kept rising.
What hasn’t risen is the number of daily deaths; in fact, that number is going down — from 41 on June 2 to seven on June 23. (The numbers for the past two weeks could be revised higher because of delays in reporting.) And while hospitalizations have risen, they haven’t gone up nearly as fast as positive cases; the state’s hospitals still seem to have more than enough capacity. Yes, deaths are a lagging indicator, but one would have expected the trend line to start climbing by now. It hasn’t. (It’s worth nothing that Rebekah Jones’s numbers are only marginally different from the state’s data.)
What appears to be happening is that while the older, more vulnerable population is taking precautions — and Florida nursing homes are still in lockdown — many younger Floridians have viewed Phase 2 as their signal to throw caution to the wind.
“Too many bars have not been compliant,” said Charles Lockwood, a scientist who heads the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida. They’ve created party atmospheres, with young people, without masks, crowded together, having a good time — and spreading Covid-19. Lockwood told me that the average age of a Floridian with the virus has dropped to younger than 34 from 62.5.
He also sent me a social distancing scoreboard compiled by a mobility data firm called Unacast. In April, the firm gave Florida a grade of B, meaning that people in the state had reduced their mobility by 55% to 70%. For most of June, Florida’s grade has been F.
DeSantis is said to be furious at the bars that are violating the rules. He has sent inspectors across the state with instructions to pull the licenses of offenders. But during a news conference the other day in Orlando, while noting that younger people are far less likely to suffer severe consequences from Covid-19, he also seemed to suggest that there wasn’t much he could do to keep them from activities that could spread the virus. (On Friday, Florida suspended drinking in bars.)
And you know something? Maybe there isn’t. Cities across Florida are reimposing mask requirements — sometimes setting steep fines for offenders. And the state government is also stressing the importance of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
Should Florida go back into lockdown because people in their 20s and 30s are engaging in risky behavior? That’s what DeSantis’s critics seem to want, but that would impose another kind of hardship — more people would lose their jobs, schools wouldn’t be able to reopen, and the economy would go into a tailspin.
Given the federal government’s utter mismanagement of the pandemic, it has fallen to governors to make decisions about balancing the risk of the virus spreading against the risk of economic calamity. DeSantis, it seems to me, is doing a pretty good job of it: Florida is protecting its elderly, cautioning the population to take appropriate protective measures but also allowing life to go on, knowing that the younger and less vulnerable are likely to do dumb things. The situation may change — the hospital system could become overwhelmed if positive cases climb relentlessly, for example — but for now, the approach makes sense.
DeSantis’s true problem is that he too often says and does things that inflame the situation. Last week, he blamed the sudden rise in positive cases on the influx of Hispanic farmworkers, which infuriated his critics. Earlier, his administration told medical examiners across the state they could no longer release information about coronavirus cases. That caused several newspapers to accuse him of hiding information.
But if you can ignore what DeSantis says, and focus instead on what Florida has done, it’s hard not to be impressed. Florida’s population is the third largest in the U.S. One out of every five residents is elderly. Yet it ranks in the bottom half of the U.S. in terms of deaths per 100,000 citizens. That may not be what DeSantis’s critics want to hear, but it’s true.
(Updates 19th paragraph with news that Florida halted drinking in bars.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."
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