To hear the media tell it over the past year, California Governor Gavin Newsom was the perfect model of leadership and responsibility when it came to confronting the COVID pandemic–while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was allegedly a reckless science-denier who put millions of lives at risk.
Yet today, Desantis enjoys a 64 percent approval rating and is flirting with a presidential run. Meanwhile, his California counterpart Newsom is facing a recall petition that appears almost certain to make the ballot this summer and could even cost him his governorship.
What happened? How did the media get the story so wrong?
It is certainly true that the two Governors have taken starkly different approaches to the pandemic. California locked down early, with San Francisco’s mayor continuing to brag that the city closed down in February of 2020, weeks before anywhere else in the country.
Millions of California students have not seen the inside of a classroom in over a year, although San Francisco’s School Board did make it a priority to remove all references to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln from the district in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement.
It’s not only California’s schools that are closed, but also gyms, small businesses, and indoor restaurants–unless you happen to be one of the state’s senior Democratic politicians, that is. In embarrassing high-profile incidents, both Governor Newsom and San Francisco’s mayor have been caught flouting the restrictions they imposed on their fellow citizens.
Last month, even as more Californians were vaccinated each day, Newsom went on television and urged residents to “double down” on mitigation measures. The state even officially recommended “double masking.”
Governor Desantis took a different approach in the Sunshine State, trusting in the judgment of Floridians, getting students quickly back in school, and leaving regulations up to private business owners.
The data tell the story of the results.
In January of 2021, Florida’s unemployment rate stood at 5.1 percent, while California’s clocked in at a whopping 9.3 percent. CNN Business, hardly a right-leaning source, rates California at 83% on its “Back to Normal” index of economic activity, below the national average, and far behind Florida where the economy is now performing at 96% of pre-pandemic levels.
Most importantly, the numbers show that Florida’s success has not come at the cost of public health, while California’s crippling lockdowns achieved little, if anything, to stem the pandemic as Newsom claimed.
As of March 23, 2021, California had reported 3,645,796 confirmed cases of Covid-19, representing 9.24% of the overall population. Florida had reported 2,011,211 cases, representing 9.36% of the state’s population. In other words, Floridians and Californians got COVID at almost exactly the same rate, even though schools, restaurants, and businesses were open in one but aggressively closed in the other.
In California, the COVID death rate has been 1,452 per one million inhabitants, while in Florida it stands at 1,527 per million. When adjusted for Florida’s older population, these figures are more or less the same.
This is consistent with recent studies comparing countries around the world, showing that lockdowns had no scientifically measurable public health effect.
Ironically, Governor DeSantis’s more open approach may even have saved lives. He pushed the state to reopen early, in June of 2020, and made clear that temporary increases in cases would not cause the state to shut back down. Experts predicted disaster–and in fairness, there was a surge of cases in late July and early August as hundreds of thousands of young people flooded Florida’s beaches and bars.
This surge, however, did not produce a high death toll or overwhelm the hospitals. Most of those infected were young and healthy, and recovered from the virus just fine. Most interestingly, it is very probable that the summer surge actually reduced the death toll of older Floridians in the winter. It caused college students and other young people who would have been unlikely to follow restrictions in any event to catch the virus early, when the weather was warm and there were no other burdens on the health system. This may have been part of the reason why the Governor’s decision to push schools to reopen for in-person instruction in September went off almost without a hitch, and Florida avoided the outbreaks in Universities which occurred in many Northeastern states. Many of the young people were already immune.
By aggressively locking down his state, Governor Newsom likely believed he was pursuing the safest political course–doing exactly what the experts and the prevailing media narrative demanded. Governor DeSantis, on the other hand, knew when he opened up Florida last summer that he was gambling his entire career–pursuing a course that the press would condemn and that the so-called experts had definitely not recommended. Nearly a year later, it appears that DeSantis’s gamble paid off–and that the “safe” course for Newsom wasn’t so safe after all.