The trouble is, Florida’s not known for “good” or “safe.” This is the state where alligators regularly invade suburban swimming pools, where people get liquored up and compete to see who can toss a dead mullet the farthest, where pastel retirement communities report alarmingly high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and sometimes the ground that you relied upon to be terra firma simply collapses under your feet into a sinkhole, swallowing you up. So when Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry declared Duval County beaches open, no one was shocked that hundreds of people forgot the mayor’s command to keep social distancing and swarmed onto the wet, yellow sand with assorted dogs, children and Frisbees. #FloridaMorons began trending almost immediately.
I take no joy in Florida’s justly famous boneheadedness. I’m a native; my family’s lived in north Florida for eight generations, ever since the king of Spain decided to give away free land and not ask too many questions. My kinfolk include dirt farmers, politicians and moonshiners. Several became judges; several went to jail. One of my great-uncles tried to convince people he’d found a volcano in the swamps of Wakulla County.
But we are not all idiots. A Florida man (John Gorrie) was a pioneer of air conditioning. A Florida woman (Janet Reno) was the nation’s first female attorney general. The brilliant folklorist and writer Zora Neale Hurston was raised in Orange County. Musicians Ray Charles and Tom Petty? Floridians! We gave the world Key lime pie. We have fantastic college football. No other state has anything remotely like the Everglades, our greatest natural wilderness, which is, admittedly, flat, wet and something of an acquired taste.
And, of course, there are the glorious beaches, with their broad, inviting sands and water that shifts its jewel hues from emerald to turquoise to sapphire. Those beaches are opioids for the soul. We can’t stay away to save our lives. I spent my childhood summers avoiding Tallahassee’s brain-deadening humidity on the Gulf of Mexico, flirting with melanoma, paddling in the shallows, ignoring the world. The beach allows you to defer, even deny, reality. The beach has no past, no future, just an eternal present. When the going gets weird in Florida (which is often), Floridians hit the beach.
No wonder the beach is the current crucible of Florida politics. DeSantis caught a lot of grief last month — during spring break season — for refusing to order the beaches closed statewide. All around Florida’s coasts, college students crammed themselves eight to a motel room, traveled in daiquiri-toting packs and cavorted en masse: What could possibly go wrong? The coronavirus numbers were already scary enough by then that most of the nation’s universities told students not to return to campus, but the governor didn’t want to take the blame for totally harshing the kids’ mellow. He preferred to leave tricky calls up to city and county officials. Miami and Fort Lauderdale quickly ordered beaches off-limits. The “Redneck Riviera” on the northern Gulf coast, a region still recovering from Hurricane Michael’s devastation in 2018, stayed open for 10 more days. By March 19, when DeSantis appeared on “Fox and Friends” and belatedly declared, “The party’s over,” the spring breakers had already become the virosphere version of shrapnel bombs, spewing coronavirus throughout the land.
I didn’t vote for DeSantis, but I hoped that as a Yale grad, he would be smart, intellectually rigorous and committed to helping Florida get through the plague in one piece. I shouldn’t have been such a snob: An Ivy League degree is no guarantor of intelligence or leadership ability, as amply demonstrated by President Trump (Penn ’68). Worse still, DeSantis has modeled his governing style on the current occupant of the Oval Office — minus the flamboyant obnoxiousness and imbecilic insults — possibly because he’s humiliatingly aware that he owes his 2018 election to Trump’s support and needs his patronage to stay in power.
And so DeSantis has dithered, obfuscated and delayed. He wouldn’t tell Floridians to stay home until he got the go-ahead from Trump; like Trump, he shills hydroxychloroquine as a supposed coronavirus miracle cure. He wants to reopen Florida’s economy sooner rather than later and has assembled a dubious task force full of CEOs and friendly politicians, but no doctors, no scientists, — not even Nikki Fried, Florida’s duly elected agriculture commissioner, who oversees the state’s $11 billion-a-year farming industry. And like Trump, he’s not above quashing his critics. The state surgeon general was escorted out of a briefing by DeSantis’s press flack after he pointed out that Florida wouldn’t get back to “normal” until there’s a vaccine — a year or more from now. (DeSantis did learn one lesson: The surgeon general didn’t get to speak at the task force’s first meeting until it was nearly over.)
That kind of talk, about vaccines and social distancing, is not popular with the Chamber of Commerce — and DeSantis prefers to be on the side of the money. He has now declared WWE an essential service in Florida. Not that pro wrestling employs a lot of Floridians. Or even does much filming in Florida. No doubt the governor was thinking of more important things, such as the heartwarming detail that on April 8, the day before DeSantis reclassified faux wrestling as central to the life of the state, Linda McMahon, wife of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, committed $18.5 million of her political action committee’s money to running pro-Trump campaign ads in Florida.
Oh, right, the campaign: November is barely six months away. Florida has a history of making a mess of elections even without the complication of a worldwide pandemic, so who knows how we’ll handle our ballots this fall. We’re not doing too well in testing for the coronavirus: Florida’s the third-largest state in the nation, but we’ve managed to test only about 1,000 people per 100,000; New York has tested 2,700 per 100,000. And we can’t really stop the virus till we know who’s sick.
But hey, at least we can watch Ronda Rousey wrestle Charlotte Flair or the Street Profits tag team take on the Viking Raiders. We can pretend that everything’s all right, that the Magic Kingdom will always be there, that Wet Willies will keep slinging daiquiris and that Florida will never impose too much reality on us. We can, after all, still go to the beach.