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 schoolkids 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 ballot bedlam 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 toward 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.”
As of Monday, the average number of daily cases had risen 162% over the last 14 days to 27,341, according to the New York Times tracker. Deaths per day have risen 211% over the same period to 122, bringing the total number of COVID-related deaths in the state to 39,934.
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, daily cases have risen by 110% to 3,279 over the last 14 days, and coronavirus-related deaths have increased by 77% to 10, bringing the total number of deaths due to the pandemic to 53,352.
But while many states and cities are revisiting their pandemic restrictions, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a first-term Republican up for re-election in 2022 (as a precursor, many believe, to a 2024 run at the presidency), 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 last week.
Moreover, Gov. DeSantis’s office is now saying that school officials who attempt to enforce mask mandates could face personal financial penalties, as in their salaries being withheld.
“Ultimately — Education funding is for the students. The kids didn’t make the decision to encroach upon parents’ rights. So any financial penalties for breaking the rule would be targeted to those officials who made that decision,” said Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, on Twitter.
That attitude is pure Floridian: defiant and independent. Say what you will, but the state marches, weirdly, to the beat of its own drum.
Florida is very much a transient state. It ranks second in the nation, behind Nevada, in its percentage of nonnatives.
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 nonnative residents. Indeed, Florida ranks second in the nation, behind only Nevada, by percentage of nonnatives.
The newcomer population includes many seniors, who are drawn by the year-round sunshine and the fact that Florida doesn’t have a state income tax. (Even 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 risked being doused with beer by 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 a 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 a tourist hot spot and the 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 roller coasters, 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 became a lot saner when I left the state and came back to New York. It also became a lot more boring, though I’ll take boring during a global pandemic.