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Pandemic Approaches: The Differences Between Florida, California

NOEL KING, HOST:

New federal data shows that in the first half of 2020, the life expectancy of Americans fell by a full year. It's now 77.8 years. That's because of coronavirus. Fortunately, cases of the virus are declining. But why is that? We're going to look at two states that used different strategies. In December, California had a spike, and Governor Gavin Newsom reimposed a stay-at-home order and a business lockdown order that was recently lifted. At the same time, cases were spiking in Florida. But everything stayed open, including schools. So which approach works? NPR correspondents in each state have been looking. Greg Allen is in Miami, Fla., and Eric Westervelt is in the Bay Area in California. Good morning, guys.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Greg Allen, I should say the official view in Florida seems to be, we did it right.

ALLEN: Well, that's right. That's certainly the view of our governor, Ron DeSantis. You know, he's a Republican. He's been very aggressive in pushing reopening since way back in the spring. And that's included the schools, as you say. Every district is required to offer in-person classes to students and parents who want them. He's made COVID something of a partisan issue, actually, here in Florida. He's attacked the media for raising questions about his response, about his refusal to impose a statewide mask mandate, for example. And he's been critical of the Biden administration and other states that he says have lockdown philosophies.

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RON DESANTIS: You see a lot of these other states that are so intent on closing people down. We've lifted people up. We've trusted Floridians. They've responded. And you see what's going on.

ALLEN: You know, like many states, Florida did go into a full lockdown back in the spring, and case number stayed low for some time. The lockdown only lasted for several weeks in May and June. When it was clear that hospitals would not be overwhelmed, DeSantis started relaxing restrictions, and then Florida saw cases spike in July. When cases declined a bit in September, he lifted all restrictions on businesses, including bars and even sports stadiums. And several weeks later, as you know, we saw cases begin to rise again. This time, it was a much bigger surge.

KING: Now, Eric, I don't know if you'd call it a lockdown philosophy as governor - to use Governor DeSantis' words, but California really has done it very differently.

WESTERVELT: I mean, absolutely. Bars and sports stadiums are most certainly not open. And, you know, this is the nation's most populous state. It has had two strong lockdowns and regional restrictions in between, frankly. And California was really the first state to order, you know, statewide mandatory restrictions. Here's Governor Gavin Newsom back in March of last year.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: This is a moment we need to make tough decisions. This is a moment where we need some straight talk, and we need to tell people the truth. We need to bend the curve in the state of California.

WESTERVELT: And Noel, at first it worked. Cases dropped. The death rate stayed relatively low. The curve was bent, but the success really was short-lived. California went from, you know, being something of a national model to being something of a mess. In late fall, we saw this horrible surge that grew even worse after Thanksgiving. And so Governor Newsom, you know, ordered this second shelter-in-place in early December that ran, you know, just till the end of January.

KING: Did the second lockdown work?

WESTERVELT: I mean, I think it's a mixed bag. Today, the state's positivity rate is down dramatically. But California had this sustained, horrible surge of infections, the worst in the nation, for many weeks after the second lockdown was ordered. And the fact is, California's deaths per capita numbers, which, you know, officials have used throughout the pandemic to defend these very tough restrictions, are in many cases either the same or worse than many states that have been far less restrictive.

And some public health officials are saying, look; we have to have an alternative to these blanket lockdowns. That might include, you know, more targeted, data-driven interventions, restrictions, as well, with teeth. You need incentives and enforcement - and key, too, you know, more nuanced messaging, not simply, you know, just say no to gathering with people. Here's Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco.

PETER CHIN-HONG: You can have all the political edicts you want. If the people don't subscribe to and believe in it, it's not going to work. And I think that's really what happened in the second part in California, driven by Southern California and Central Valley.

KING: OK. So California has two. And then, Greg, did Florida end up doing a second lockdown?

ALLEN: No, Florida never went to another lockdown. According to the CDC, the results haven't been too bad. We've had - Florida's have fewer cases per capita than California. It's had more deaths per capita than California. Florida ranks 28th nationally versus California, which is 34th. But epidemiologists say one factor there is that Florida has a significantly older population.

KING: Yeah, that makes sense.

OK. So it sounds like it's not that simple to just say, lockdowns work and save lives, or they don't work and people will die anyway. But one of the things that's been - one of the stakes here is, what have these lockdowns meant for people's livelihoods? Greg, let me ask you what's happened to Florida's economy

ALLEN: Well, you know, in Florida, most businesses are open, and they have been for months now. Theme parks actually were allowed to reopen in June. So in terms of the economy, Florida's not doing too badly compared with the rest of the nation. Unemployment's below the national average. Consumer spending, judged by sales tax collections, is nearly back. Tourism is, of course, still way down. But there are signs that even that's ready to rebound. Here's Sean Snaith, who's the director of the Institute for Economic Forecasting at the University of Central Florida.

SEAN SNAITH: The data for Orlando over the holiday season showed that it had the highest number of passenger traffic in the entire nation, still down 42% percent versus the previous holiday season - but, again, a sign that this pent-up demand is starting to be released.

WESTERVELT: And Noel, here in the world's fifth-largest economy, it's just not as rosy. Unemployment in California surged in December alongside new virus cases. And many small business owners continue to be angry and frustrated. Rory Cox owns several small gyms in San Francisco, and he's helped organize fellow small business owners who continue to see these repeated closures as arbitrary, capricious and not data-driven.

RORY COX: We need people back to work. We need kids in school. We're a laughingstock across the nation. It's embarrassing. I don't think that the data they claim to be basing their decisions off of has been provided.

KING: His statement leads to a final question, which is about political fallout for the leaders who made these decisions. Greg, what happened in Florida?

ALLEN: Well, you know, so far, Governor DeSantis has not been doing too badly. He's up for reelection next year. He has a policy that he calls "Seniors First," giving everybody a vaccination who's over 65. That doesn't hurt in a state with more than 4.5 million seniors, you know, many of them reliable voters. Democrats accuse him of playing politics with the vaccine rollout, but he appears to be doing pretty well on a glide path to being reelected. And his name comes up as a person who might run for the White House in 2024.

WESTERVELT: Well - and here, Governor Gavin Newsom is facing a recall movement that's gaining momentum. His approval ratings have tanked. The vaccine rollout has been a mess here. A key moment in all this was in November, right before Thanksgiving, when Newsom was telling families, don't mix outside your household. He was caught flouting his own rules, attending a dinner party at a fancy restaurant in Napa. Newsom apologized. But Noel, the damage was done. And this episode, for critics, has really become a metaphor for Newsom's handling of the entire pandemic.

KING: NPR's Eric Westervelt in the San Francisco Bay Area and Greg Allen in Miami.

Thanks, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.