On May 1, the Friday before Florida began its phased reopening, Ron DeSantis, the state’s 41-year-old governor and a fierce ally of President Donald Trump, held a news conference in Jacksonville, where he was born.

Two aspects of his remarks stood out for me. The first was how aggrieved he sounded. Practically since the coronavirus hit Florida, DeSantis has been pilloried for the way he has handled the crisis. He was late in calling for a statewide lockdown. He barred a journalist from a news conference after she requested that he accommodate the need for social distancing. He refused to shut down churches and synagogues. Following Trump’s lead, he touted the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus. His harshest critic, the Miami Herald, began an editorial in mid-April this way:

“You know what Florida really needs right now? A governor.”

Because the state’s parks were set to reopen on Monday, DeSantis chose to make his remarks at Little Talbot Island State Park in Jacksonville. The park sits on an undeveloped barrier island where visitors can enjoy “beachcombing, surfing, fishing, hiking” and bird watching, according to a state website. It was a little after 11 a.m. The temperature was in the 80s. A kayak and a bicycle were on display behind his podium.

Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, had decided to reopen its beaches two weeks earlier, and as you no doubt recall, social media was full of photos — and withering criticism — of residents walking on the beach, most without masks or much concern for social distancing. The photos were often accompanied with the hashtag #FloridaMorons. It was clear the criticism infuriated DeSantis. 

A lot of people — “from between D.C. and New York” — had made it sound as if opening the beach was akin to the sky falling, he said. He continued:

They did misleading pictures, acting like it was Lollapalooza on the beach or something like that. And this is what they were focused on. Not dirty subway cars. …And people here were mocked. …Has there been some type of major outbreak? No. In fact cases have declined. …Two weeks ago, the county reported 29 new cases. Out of a county of a million people, that is extremely low. That’s like lunchtime in Queens.

And the second thing that struck me about the governor’s remarks? How sensible they sounded. Seriously. Why was Florida opening its parks? Because, he said, even in a pandemic, open spaces were necessary for peace of mind. And because the evidence showed that the risk of contracting the virus was much lower outdoors than indoors. And because maintaining proper social distancing in parks was not terribly difficult.

Why had Florida decided to keep its restrictions on the three counties encompassing Miami and Palm Beach? Because those were the places with the highest density and the largest number of deaths and hospitalizations. In the rest of the state, the story was much different. He began ticking off the daily number of new cases in Duval County since the beaches opened: 11, 19, 18, 17, 24, 4, 10, 6. One of DeSantis’s mantras has been that Florida should not take a one-size-fits-all approach to coronavirus mitigation. Didn’t these numbers prove his point?

He also made some points that are considered impolitic these days. In the first phase of Florida’s reopening, social distancing will still be enforced; restaurants can’t exceed 50% capacity, for instance. And the elderly will still remain quarantined; indeed, with rare exceptions, Florida doesn’t even allow nursing homes residents to have visitors.

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