The Curious Case of Florida’s Pandemic Response

Liberals predicted that Florida would get destroyed by its laissez-faire approach to COVID-19. Conservatives said the state was the future of the economy. What if they were both wrong?

An illustration of Pinocchio with a palm tree as a nose
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Crazy/Genius.

I started reporting this essay with a clear thesis: Florida is having a moment. To the extent that winning a pandemic is possible, Florida seemed to be winning the pandemic.

Despite criticism from liberals for its laissez-faire approach to COVID-19, Florida has been “booming,” according to CNN, and the state’s success is “a vindication for their policies.” Governor Ron DeSantis bragged that Florida drew a straight flush of pandemic outcomes: “open schools, comparatively low unemployment, and per capita COVID mortality below the national average.” If you tracked the digital murmurings of Silicon Valley elites, no city in the United States seemed hotter than Miami for the billionaire set. A casual glance at any photographic representation of South Florida made it seem like a pre-pandemic haven of packed bars, sunny beaches, and beautiful people leading the sort of carefree life that a northeastern urbanite shut-in like myself could experience only in the REM stage of sleep.

I also got the impression that everybody was moving there—and not just from the many people I personally knew who were moving there. In U-Haul’s migration-trends review for 2020, the top three cities for net arrivals were all in Florida. In an analysis of LinkedIn data, Jacksonville was second among all metros in growth of net inflow of workers (Tampa Bay was 14th.) Succinctly summarizing all of these Sunshine State superlatives, the New York Post writer Karol Markowicz wrote: “The future is Florida.”

But the closer I looked, the more holes I found in the simple pro-Florida narrative.

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.

If you’re feeling a little bit confused about what exactly is going on in Florida, then good: You and I are on the same page. I can’t tell you how much Florida risked, in human life, from its open approach to COVID-19, or how much it gained, in gross state product, from YOLOing a pandemic. But let me do my best to summarize what I’ve learned about this confusion:

1. Florida is where national narratives go to die.

If you want to say something declarative that will be proved wrong in a few months, I strongly encourage you to comment on Florida. Liberals projected that the state would suffer disproportionately for its casual approach to the pandemic, but its deaths are in line with the national average. Conservatives hailed the state for its open-air and open-business approach to 2020, but the available evidence doesn’t seem to prove that Florida’s economy is doing exceptionally well compared with those of its southern neighbors. Media organizations (such as Bloomberg) reported that Miami was attracting financiers on its way to becoming “Wall Street South” shortly before media organizations (such as, uh, also Bloomberg) reported that a lot of those transplants were going right back to Wall Street OG. The Journal claims that people are leaving Florida as often as they’re arriving, but its own source says that observation misses the mark by several hundred thousand souls. Given the obvious epistemic risks of saying anything declarative about Florida, a part of me thinks I should just stop writing now.

2. Florida has a housing problem.

Despite its big headline error, the Journal article makes an important point. The state’s high-end-real-estate market is booming while its overall housing inventory is declining rapidly. “The strong and persistent level of demand seen throughout the state, coupled with worsening inventory shortages, continued to drive up home values,” the Florida real-estate economist Brad O’Connor wrote in 2020.

The same dynamics that are roiling the housing markets of the largest coastal metro areas are starting to emerge in the Sunshine State. Since 2012, Miami home prices have increased by 94 percent, nearly the exact same as those in Los Angeles in that time. Prices are soaring as inventory melts away; Florida’s active listings fell by 50 percent last year, and it’s not doing enough to keep up with demand. In 2020, housing starts in Florida grew slower than the national average, as the number of apartment-construction projects declined by 15 percent statewide, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Unable to afford a home in metro Florida, many middle-class Millennials are moving out of the state, as older, richer Americans are pouring in. As seniors flock to cities that young, middle-class families are leaving, Florida is becoming more affluent, older, and childless—a very familiar picture in 21st-century America.

If you’re looking for an ethnically diverse coastal state with a large Latino population, spectacular weather, an outspoken tech presence, routine encounters with the furies of climate change, and rapidly rising housing costs that pose a threat to long-term population growth, Florida fits the bill almost as well as the blue state that Floridians love to hate, California. If Florida doesn’t address its housing problem, it could suffer from some of the same problems as its lockdown antithesis.

3. Florida’s mysteries are worth solving, even if (especially if!) their solution proves that you were wrong.

We can’t run a parallel-universe experiment to know how Florida’s hospitals and economy would have fared with a California-style approach. In the land of statistical noninformation, the anecdote has become king. That’s why the Florida narrative is so exquisitely sensitive to every Silicon Valley–investor quote, every beach photograph, every COVID-19 graph and Wall Street Journal article. One year ago, I wrote about the fog of pandemic: We lacked good data to tell us how bad things were, and how much worse they were getting. Today we are navigating the whirlwind of recovery: There is simply too much anecdote to look at.

But while I think Florida’s pandemic success has been inflated, the state has surprised people. In 2020, smart media figures and scientists predicted that COVID-19 would especially ravage Florida, given its open economy and elderly population. They were wrong. Why? Did Florida just get lucky? Is this mostly about the salutary benefits of the outdoors, or the coronavirus’s sensitivity to heat and humidity? Do strict lockdowns simply fail the cost-benefit analysis? The answer to all three questions may be yes. But they are important unknowns, and we should investigate them with data rather than political headlines alternately claiming that Florida is an economic heaven and a pandemic hell. If the numbers can tell us anything at this point, it’s that Florida is neither.