I spent almost two decades living in Florida and even I’m hard-pressed to pick the moment that stood out as my weirdest.
There was the time that feral hogs roamed through my suburban neighborhood, putting a group of school kids waiting for the morning bus in jeopardy.
Or the time an elderly driver nearly ran me off the road by accident, but still boldly asked for directions to his intended location when I stepped out of my car to inspect for possible damage.
And let’s not forget the whole bedlam ballot of the 2000 presidential election. I covered it as a journalist and found myself standing face to face with civil-rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was leading a protest. Naturally, my job was to ask him about the rumors that pop star and actress Cher might be in attendance. (Apparently, they were false.)
All of which goes a long way to explaining that nothing surprises me when it comes to my former state, including its current COVID-19 situation.
‘We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state and I can tell you, Florida, we’re a free state.’
— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida’s case count has been increasing dramatically in recent days, with the Washington Post recently calling the state “the epicenter of a summer coronavirus spike.”
The number of cases has risen 103% over the last 14 days to 18,120, according to the New York Times tracker. Deaths have risen 12% over the same period to 72, bringing the total number of COVID-related deaths in the state to 39,403.
Not that other states are in such great shape. In New York, where I was born and raised and where I returned more than a decade ago, cases have risen to 150% to 2,841 over the last 14 days, and coronavirus-related deaths have increased by 67% to 9, bringing the total number of deaths due to the pandemic to 53,315.
But while many states and cities are revisiting their pandemic restrictions, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has defied any calls for mask mandates or shutdowns. “We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state and I can tell you, Florida, we’re a free state,” he said earlier this week.
That attitude is purely Floridian, defiant and independent. Say what you will, but the state marches to the beat of its own weird drum.
Florida is very much a transient state. It ranks second in the nation, only behind Nevada, in terms of the percentage of non-natives.
Experts will tell you there’s plenty reason for that. Begin with the fact that Florida is very much a transient state, with plenty of non-native residents. Indeed, Florida ranks second in the nation, only behind Nevada, in terms of the percentage of non-natives.
The newcomer population includes many seniors, who are drawn by the year-round sunshine and the fact Florida doesn’t have a state income tax. (Even Gov. DeSantis once referred to Florida as “God’s waiting room.”)
The result is that many Florida residents don’t really have much of a connection to Florida. And by extension, they arguably don’t worry about what anyone else in the state thinks. “They care more about their home states,” says Brian Crowley, a Florida-based political consultant (and a rare native Floridian).
The lack of community — in my own experience living there — was palpable sometimes to the point of absurdity. I used to go to Miami Marlins games (back when the team was called the Florida Marlins) and would routinely find that most of the fans in the stands were rooting for the visiting club.
When I attended the 2003 World Series in Miami, which pitted the New York Yankees against my beloved Fish, as the Florida team is sometimes called, I nearly got doused with beer from all the Yankee-loving “Floridians” in the stands every time I cheered for the Marlins.
Where Goofy lives: Florida is home to Disney World and other theme parks.
Garth Vaughan/WDW via Getty Images
There are other factors behind Florida’s weirdness (and go-it-aloneness). Some point to the relentless heat as being key. “It does make people’s tempers snap faster,” says Craig Pittman, a Florida-based writer and author of the book, “Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.” Pittman says it explains why Floridians, when pushed to the limit, reach for the nearest plate of spaghetti.
There’s also Florida’s status as the tourist and theme park capital of the world. It’s a place where fun and make-believe are everyday reality. (I used to say that while Florida didn’t have a state income tax, it did have an equivalent in a Disney
The point being that if you’re obsessed with riding rollercoasters, you may not obsess as much about wearing a mask to protect yourself against a deadly virus. “Tourism is about living for the day and doing what you want,” says Pittman.
All I know is that life become a lot saner when I left the state and came back to New York. But it also became a lot more boring, though I’ll take boring during a global pandemic.