Florida's spring break problem shows a political pandemic divide: Red and blue states are treating coronavirus differently

spring breakers

Michele Sandberg/Getty Images

Florida has been teeming with spring breakers during the coronavirus pandemic (photo taken in 2015).

  • Spring breakers have been crowding Florida's beaches amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Florida's governor won't close beaches statewide.
  • Florida's more liberal and urban areas have been quicker to shut down beaches while more conservative areas have been slower to respond.
  • With a few exceptions, many red states are lagging in enforcing stay-at-home orders to keep the economy healthy, leaving their Democratic-run cities to impose their own rules.
  • As the pandemic has spread into America's biggest cities, shutting down daily life for the majority of residents, political leaders in less dense areas have been slower to restrict economic activity.
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Florida has a spring break problem.

Throughout March, the beaches of the sunshine state have been crowded with college students on their spring break amid the coronavirus pandemic. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn't closed beaches statewide, leaving the decision up to local governments to help slow the spread of coronavirus.Advertisement

So far, DeSantis has signed an order that will limit beach parties to 10 people per group and closed all bars and nightclubs in the state for 30 days. On Friday, he issued an executive order closing all beaches and businesses in Broward and Palm Beach counties, among the largest and hardest hit by pandemic, until March 31. His office said governments will have the ability to enforce, relax, modify, or remove these closures as they see fit.

But DeSantis' relative slowness and reluctance to enforce stricter measures have stirred a lot of controversy. One Florida attorney is even suing him for not closing public beaches statewide to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Florida's piecemeal response to the coronavirus mirrors the patchwork response of different states - and cities - in the absence of an overarching response from the federal government.
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Florida's more conservative areas have been slower to respond to the coronavirus pandemic

The New York Times has suggested that DeSantis is hesitating to enforce measures that may hurt the state's $86 billion tourism industry. A Republican, DeSantis' response is in tune with his party's pro-business, small government stance - his way of trying to keep Florida's economy strong in a time when a pandemic has sparked nationwide shutdowns, already crippling the economy.

Florida is historically a swing state. In the 2016 election, the number of voters registered as Republican and Democrat were split nearly evenly - 4.4 million and 4.6 million, respectively - alongside 3 million voters registered as independents. The coronavirus pandemic response by local governments tells the tale of the state's divide among party lines: Florida cities have been shutting their beaches down one by one, but more conservative areas have been slower to take action.
Miami Beach spring break shut down police

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Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale were the first Florida cities to close down parts of their public beaches.

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Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale were the first to do so on March 15, with the Democratic mayors of each city devising a plan together so each city's regulations wouldn't send an influx of spring breakers to the other.

That same week, Clearwater and Panama City - both headed by Republican mayors - made national news for their packed beaches. Clearwater's City Council closed the beaches for two weeks on March 23 after a public backlash. City officials in Panama City originally said they had no plans to close the beaches there, but decided on Friday to close the beaches until March 26 - among the last in Florida to close its beaches, according to Elisha Fieldstadt for NBC News.

There have been exceptions. Republican Miami Mayor Francisco Suarez, who himself has tested positive for COVID-19, shut down dine-in restaurants and bars on March 16 and posted videos online encouraging Floridians to stay at home. And Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott tweeted that there was no excuse for every county in the US not to have a mobile testing center up and running by late last week. Advertisement

Many red states aren't showing the level of urgency of blue states

While the political pattern is more gray than black-and-white, Florida's statewide coronavirus response - or lack of one - closely resembles the American one as a whole.

Currently, 158 million people across 16 states have been told to "shelter in place" or "stay at home," according to The New York Times. But many red states are lagging in implementing such orders, reported The Los Angeles Times.

In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt Tweeted about a family night out dining at a packed restaurant. In Missouri, social distancing was just enforced by Republican Gov. Mike Parson on Monday.Advertisement

And in Texas, things are looking a lot like they are in Florida.

Like Florida, Texas is a personal income tax-free state with an economy reliant on tourism, including beaches popping off with spring breakers. Like Florida, its governor also hasn't implemented a stay-at-home order. "What may be right for places like the larger urban areas may not be right for the more than 200 counties that still have zero cases of COVID-19," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference on Sunday.

Greg Abbott

Sue Ogrocki/AP

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is leaving stay-at-home orders up to local governments.

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That's left the state's more urban areas, like Floridian cities, enacting stricter measures. Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas - all headed by either Democratic or Independent mayors - have issued stay-at-home orders.

DeSantis offered a similar explanation to Abbott's in a briefing on Monday: "This is not a virus that's impacting every corner of the state."Again, this does not speak for all red states - for example, the Republican governors of Ohio and Indiana have both issued stay-at-home orders - but the trend is real.Advertisement

The coronavirus health crisis highlights ideological and geographical differences

President Donald Trump initially downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, claiming that Democrats were making it their "new hoax." While Trump has since treated it with more seriousness, he has not instituted a nationwide strategy for containment, and he said on Fox News on Tuesday that he would "love" to have the country fully opened up for business by Easter (April 12).

The hardest hit communities, according to current data, are the big metro areas like Seattle and New York City, typically led by Democrats, while the more rural areas yet to see major outbreaks also form the voter base of the current Republican party, a connection noted by The Atlantic's Ronald Brownstein.

Because Republican-leaning states are showing less urgency, that's "left Democratic-run cities in those red states ... to try to impose their own rules on public gatherings," reported Brownstein. Advertisement

(The general lack of testing may also mean that red states are more affected by the virus than current data indicates).

President Trump

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Trump downplayed the threat of coronavirus earlier this year, and more recently expressed impatience with social distancing's effect on the economy.

Slightly more than half of Republicans think the coronavirus threat is exaggerated, compared to one in five Democrats and two in five independents, according to a recent poll by NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist.Advertisement

"The tendency of Democratic-leaning places to feel the impact first reflects the larger economic separation between the two parties," wrote Brownstein. "Democrats now dominate the places in the US most integrated into the global economy, which may be more likely to receive international visitors or see their own residents travel abroad."

Some medical experts told Brownstein the coronavirus will spread to more rural areas, while others said the US' biggest cities will remain hardest hit. But the experts Brownstein spoke to warned of two things if the virus does make its way to rural areas: they have older populations, meaning there could be less cases but a higher mortality rate, and that in turn could reinforce long-bred animosity by small towns toward more cosmopolitan areas.

Get the latest coronavirus analysis and research from Business Insider Intelligence on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses.

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