This piece first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.
Six months into America’s COVID-19 crisis and, remarkably, the virus continues to confound experts. Nevertheless, Gov. DeSantis continues to be attacked as if the best approaches are obvious and clear.
In fact, DeSantis, like his peers in other states, is being forced to make severe policy trade-offs in a highly fluid and ambiguous public-health crisis.
The governor’s dilemma may be best illustrated by two headlines received in mid-June within minutes of each other via the same statewide media source: “DeSantis vows to keep state open as cases surge” and “DeSantis promises big cuts to state budget.”
The first article highlighted the state’s increase in positive coronavirus tests, implying more cases might justify rolling back the state’s opening. The second article reported on the inevitable fiscal reckoning created by lockdowns imposed in April and March.
Prior to the lockdowns and widespread public concerns about infection, the state was on track for a healthy fiscal surplus. With the collapse of the tourism, recreation and hospitality industries and the ripple effects, the state now finds itself tracking revenues $1.3 billion below estimates. The red ink won’t stop flowing anytime soon.
Despite $1-billion in spending cuts, DeSantis saved big ticket items like teacher pay raises, water projects and funding for environmental conservation. It’s hard to underestimate the deftness with which he and his advisors accomplished this fiscal feat.
Without federal bailouts and the state’s cash reserves, the budget cuts would have been bigger and deeper. Indeed, state and local government employees may well be facing significant job cuts and revisiting the state’s benefit and pension obligations.
While the jury is still out, DeSantis’ strategy toward COVID-19 looks much more prudent than his critics admit. The statewide lockdown came with consequences, and the governor, like elected officials across the state, had to make judgement calls without good data or precedent.
DeSantis’ strategy, even with the surges in July, is likely the best for a diverse state such as Florida. Just 10 counties — including Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsoborough — account for 75% of the state’s cases. Even though Florida has logged nearly 300,000 cases, 35 counties have fewer than 1,000 cases. Forty-one have so few cases their numbers round to 0% in the state database.
Local officials remain in the best position to determine which mix of strategies are most suitable. The role of the state is to provide support and expertise, fill gaps in health-care services, facilitate intercounty coordination, and ensure elected officials and professionals have the most accurate and reliable data available.
The current pandemic is without contemporary precedent. Florida, like the rest of the world, continues to search for the best policy strategies in the absence of a mass deployment of a vaccine.
As citizens and policy analysts, our role is to help inform their decisions with evidence, rather than sniping from anecdote and partisan positioning.
A little grace may be justified in a pandemic.
Samuel R. Staley, PhD, the director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University, has tested negative for COVID-19 and wears a mask in public.
The featured image is from the Florida Governor webpage.