To get a sense of Florida’s priorities amid a viral pandemic, economic ruin, and a campaign for black lives, just look to the letter I received from state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis on Monday evening, asking me if I was a paid Chinese Communist agent.
The form letter was addressed to the Florida-based S-corporation I formed in 2009 to handle my freelance writing and editing and which, as a “veteran-owned” business, is registered as a state vendor, even though I’ve never bid on a public contract and never intend to. The letter’s aim was “to identify state vendors who are owned or controlled by the Communist Party of China.” Accordingly, it said, “you are hereby requested to respond within 30 days by verifying your status as a company owned and controlled by U.S. Interests, in order to avoid necessary follow up” by the state Department of Financial Services.
As a Republican state representative, Patronis—whose family runs a restaurant, winery, real estate, and bottled-water empire, and whose cousin is the long-serving vice president of the state gun lobby—was the Florida chairman of the notorious conservative, Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council. He earned fame for championing lobbyist-written bills that denuded Florida’s critical ecology and despoiled its environment. After he was term-limited out of the state House in 2014, he joined the state Cabinet as its elected CFO and promptly was accused of hiring lobbyists and moochers and pressuring state officials to stop cooperating with a case against a Miami financial adviser who had donated $25,000 to Patronis’s campaign.
On Monday, as Patronis’s office was mailing state corporations to try and ferret out Commies in their midst, Florida identified 2,783 new cases of coronavirus among its residents, the state’s highest single-day total since the global pandemic broke out. It was the third record-high daily case total Florida reported in the past week.
Those numbers have risen steadily since June began, a direct and predictable consequence of decisions made by a state government in which Republicans have dominated the Cabinet, House, and Senate for 20 of the past 21 years. The state now says it has recorded 83,000 cases of Covid-19 and 3,000 deaths. For a month, Governor Ron DeSantis, Patronis’s ostensible boss and a partner in the decades-long conservative project to turn Florida into a no-services fiefdom for frictionless profiteering, has pushed to reopen bars, restaurants, and beaches—science and statistics be damned.
Now, nonwealthy Floridians are getting sick and dying in record numbers. Sixteen women attended a recent birthday party at a prematurely opened, packed, mostly maskless bar in Jacksonville, and all contracted the virus. Five workers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Hurricane Hunter” airbase in Lakeland have come down with the virus, just as an especially active storm season is kicking off in Florida. Multiple bars in St. Petersburg have voluntarily shut down after the coronavirus roared back among their service staff.
Back in April, the Trump administration used a controversially sunny projection model to predict that, at worst, 100,000 Americans would die of coronavirus-related illness. That model now puts Florida at a literal inflection point: From here until October 1, it predicts, Florida’s Covid-19 deaths will likely sextuple, from 3,000 to more than 18,000. That’s the likeliest course; there’s a possibility up to 55,000 Floridians may be dead by then. If so, the dead would number roughly twice DeSantis’s margin of victory in his 2018 gubernatorial election.
On Tuesday, DeSantis took a break from welcoming the Republican National Convention to Jacksonville, waving the starting flag at a Nascar race south of Miami, and pushing for schools to open this fall, to announce that “No, we’re not shutting down, you know, we’re going to go forward.” He also echoed President Trump and Vice President Pence in writing off the troubling rise in Covid cases as attributable to higher rates of testing. But all the available data show that Florida has a dangerously high, rising number of positive tests per capita; positive tests now make up as many as 7 percent of all tests in Florida. Testing is finding more afflicted Floridians because there are more afflicted Floridians. “The fact that these are going up means there’s more community spread,” said Palm Beach County health director Alina Alonso. “The virus now has food out there. It has people that are out there without masks, without maintaining distancing. So it’s infecting more people.”
Nonetheless, many of my fellow state citizens are vulnerable to DeSantis’s batshittery, not least because they are wage earners facing financial ruin. At the same time the governor was promising to push forward with reopenings, members of the Penrod family, which has operated a series of local spring break bars and clubs since before I was born, organized their bartenders for a “right to work” protest on Fort Lauderdale Beach, demanding the businesses be allowed to open. No reporters apparently asked the protesters if they’d tried to apply for unemployment benefits, including those guaranteed by April’s federal stimulus, but hundreds of thousands of state residents have complained that Florida’s unemployment system—intentionally made complex and hard to navigate by Republicans—isn’t giving them what they need to live. DeSantis, meanwhile, has blamed journalists for asking questions about these snafus, dismissed calls for a federal investigation, and pushed “reopening” as the life-giving capital solution working Floridians need.
In college, I studied the decline of the Soviet Union and its last failed efforts to engineer society around a “New Soviet Man,” a fit, young, action-oriented prototype optimized for kitschy ideological warfare. Everything Republicans have done in Florida since I was an adolescent here—from deregulating septic tanks to disenfranchising millions of voters—has established that the state exists primarily for a certain kind of Florida Man, and the rest of us are welcome to ride behind him, as long as we pay our own way. Now I can’t help but wonder if DeSantis and his partisans’ coronavirus calculus is an essentially eugenicist one: They seem overtly content to let lots of people die, as long as they’re the right people.
At the beginning of the pandemic, DeSantis—whose campaign for governor was shot through with race-baiting and xenophobia—had blamed an influx of New Yorkers for spreading the virus in his state. But at his press conference Tuesday, he found new groups to blame:
The governor noted that more testing is being conducted in “high-risk environments” like farms with migrant workers, jails or prisons and long-term care facilities. He provided the example of a watermelon farm in Alachua County. According to the governor, 100 workers were tested for coronavirus and 90 of the tests came back positive for a 90% positivity rate.
At the same time that he scapegoated prisoners and migrant workers for the virus’s spread, DeSantis pointed out that 86 percent of the state’s Covid deaths were senior citizens, saying there were more deaths among Floridians over 90 than there were among Floridians under 65. “To suppress a lot of working-age people at this point, I don’t think would be effective,” said DeSantis, who caught flack for joking in an April coronavirus press conference that Florida’s large senior population made the state “God’s waiting room.”
Despite pressure from medical experts, DeSantis has also refused to make masks mandatory in public. Anyone who has walked the streets of Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach knows that Florida Man doesn’t wear no sissy mask. “I don’t think [mandatory masking is] a reasonable thing,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We should be trusting people to make good decisions.”
None of these are good decisions. None of them make sense if you care about people, their families, and their welfare. “Working-age people” do die of Covid-19 in Florida, although, as one newspaper points out, “Florida health officials do not want the public to see the details of how the first 25 people age 40 or younger died.” Even if we don’t die in numbers large enough to unnerve DeSantis, our survival of Covid can be marked by lifelong, disabling conditions. More to the point, many of us have children and parents here; my folks, small-business owners, have preexisting conditions that were uninsurable before Obamacare and that have kept me and my son from hugging them since March, out of an abundance of caution. Even if we do not die or fall ill for life, we can be deadly disease vectors for the people we love.
What, then, is the principle underlying DeSantis’s cavalier attitude toward a virus that has killed more Americans than Kaiser Wilhelm’s army in World War I? The more time I spend here, the easier it becomes for me to believe that the Republican motivation is to work for the extinction, ruination, or flight of everyone who doesn’t elevate their prototypical Florida Man: superior, acquisitive, self-obsessed, and aggrieved. How many of Florida’s 21.5 million residents does that really describe? I’m not sure. But I know that, in Republicans’ eyes, the rest of us may as well be Chinese Communists.