But the closer I looked, the more holes I found in the simple pro-Florida narrative.
From the September 2020 issue: How the pandemic defeated America
Yes, Florida is seeing falling COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. But so is just about everywhere else. And its overall pandemic performance is just about typical. (Some have questioned the veracity of the state’s public COVID-19 data, but I’m assuming for the purposes of this piece that its numbers are accurate.) Florida ranks 27th in deaths per capita, with higher proportional fatalities than Washington, D.C., California, and 22 other states. That’s not a resounding “vindication,” even if Florida’s economic performance blew everybody else’s out of the water.
As far as I can tell, though, it didn’t. At 4.8 percent, its unemployment rate is 18th in the country, and not meaningfully different from that of the median states, South Carolina and Virginia, at 5.3 percent. Real-time data tracking state spending and employment show that Florida is doing, again, no better than average. Compared with January 2020, its consumer spending is down 1 percent, which is right in line with the national average. Its small-business revenue is down about 30 percent—again, almost exactly the national average. These statistics may be missing something. But the national narrative of an exceptionally white-hot Florida economy doesn’t match the statistical record of its performance.
Political tug-of-wars over Governor DeSantis’s record and photos of swimsuit parties are currently guiding the debate over coronavirus policies. But guided by statistics, I would have identified a different pandemic hero. Vermont has the second-lowest COVID-19 death rate in the country (just behind Hawaii) and the third-lowest unemployment rate (after South Dakota and Utah). To the extent that winning a pandemic is possible, Vermont really is winning the pandemic.
Adding to the muddle, last week, a viral story in The Wall Street Journal upended the idea that Florida was experiencing a migratory boom. “Homebuyers Are Heading to Florida During Covid, but Nearly as Many Are Moving Out,” the headline announced, citing a projection that the state’s population growth would hit its lowest rate since 2014. The finding stunned me: Were people quietly leaving Florida at the same rate they were loudly moving in?
I called the demographer quoted in the story to ask him if that headline could possibly be true. And guess what? It isn’t.
“The idea that as many people are leaving Florida as arriving is not an accurate description of our projections,” said Stefan Rayer, of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “We think hundreds of thousands more Americans migrated to Florida last year than moved out.” His group did estimate that Florida’s population growth is slowing down, but that is almost entirely due to declining immigration from outside the U.S., a rise in deaths, and a sudden and shocking decline in births. In fact, deaths exceeded births in Florida for the first time in history last year.