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Moved to Florida? Expect the concerned check-ins from back home

When there’s wild news on politics, weather, crime or gators, Florida transplants know what’s coming.
 
An American alligator shows off its teeth as it basks in the sun in a South Florida wetlands area.
An American alligator shows off its teeth as it basks in the sun in a South Florida wetlands area. [ Times (2019) ]
Published July 25, 2023|Updated July 30, 2023

Josh Perry was going about his day as a retail store manager in St. Augustine when an Instagram message from his sister in Maryland pinged his phone.

“Blink once if you’re OK, twice if you’re not,” she wrote, before sharing a post about a new Florida health care law.

Perry, 41, has become used to such messages, which he described as a mixture of genuine concern and humorous needling from people back home who don’t quite understand why he moved to Florida. (Perry and his wife, alienated by Florida’s politics, are working toward moving out of the state.)

“I get (the messages) all the time,” he said, “whenever there’s some new education thing, or like when the new concealed carry law happened or the new abortion law.”

Perry is not alone. Thousands of new residents have poured into Florida in recent years. That migration came alongside the rise of a newsmaking governor who has worked to reshape the state in ways that have delighted supporters and appalled many liberals. With all that came even more national media attention for a place that has long loomed cartoonishly large in American culture — perceived as beautiful yet rife with weird crime, extreme weather and dangerous wildlife.

Some Florida transplants say all that attention and controversy lead to frequent check-ins from out-of-state friends and family who follow the news, especially if the place they call “back home” leans left politically.

“I’ve definitely gotten the ‘Are you OK?’ texts, said Tampa’s Riley Elizabeth, 21. Others said they’ve received an even more direct “WTF?” more than once. Another recent arrival described feeling like people must be seeing more DeSantis news back in South Bend, Indiana, than most people even see in Florida.

Kayla Steinberg, a 30-year-old hospital recruiter, moved to Pinellas Park from Milwaukee a year ago. In May, her phone lit up out of nowhere with an all-caps text from a friend back in Wisconsin.

“It’s a calm Wednesday afternoon,” Steinberg said, “and I get, ‘WOW YOUR GOVERNOR IS THE LITERAL DEVIL’.” DeSantis had signed a new immigration bill. She’d gotten another disapproving comment from another out-of-state friend about another Florida policy making headlines, just a day before she spoke to the Times.

“It’s pretty common for me to get texts asking what’s going on in Florida,” Steinberg said. I didn’t vote for (DeSantis), but they love to remind me where I live. I want to show them the beautiful parts of Florida.”

Jill Knudsen, 54, moved to Seminole in late 2021 and teaches French and Spanish remotely for a community college in the State University of New York system.

“Do you have any books left?” was a recent unsolicited quip from an academic colleague in New York, Knudsen said, but even outside the U.S., Florida can elicit a strong response. “‘Why would any decent person be in Florida?’ That one was from an international friend.”

Others told the Times that the comments fly in from people back home who look at Florida and like what they’re seeing.

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“They started out saying things like, ‘Your whole family is going to get eaten by alligators,” said Shari Stokes, who moved with her husband and four children. “I think they were so focused on us leaving that at first they didn’t want to admit that it’s actually a way better conservative state than our liberal Minnesota. Now we get things like, ‘I’m so jealous!’”

Another transplant who is lukewarm on DeSantis described a parent on Long Island frequently texting unsolicited DeSantis headlines, along with praise in the form of many American flag emojis.

Ginamarie Marchi, a 25-year-old bartender for a Clearwater Beach hotel, is originally from New Jersey, where there has been some confusion about her choice to decamp.

“They almost treat Florida like it’s some kind of sick joke,” Marchi said. “Honestly, I kind of thought the same thing. I only came here to work for three months, but I decided to stay. People were shocked, confused, concerned, they think it’s all disgusting Florida Man. Then I posted photos of the beach. Now they want to know if they can come stay and use my discount.”

Cuban-born Juan Alonso-Rodriguez, a 67-year-old artist, arrived in St. Petersburg in October after 40 years in Seattle. He works out of a studio in the Warehouse Arts District. Alonso-Rodriguez, who is gay, said friends have reached out to ask, “Are you safe?”

“My Seattle friends feel like I’m about to get kidnapped or lynched at any moment,” he said. “I understand their concerns, but I try to let them know that seeing only the most sensational headlines on the news doesn’t really reflect my day-to-day life in a place like St. Pete.”

Alonso-Rodriguez is fine with constructive criticism — he is critical of DeSantis’ record on LGBTQ+ rights — but he has started blocking people who send comments like, “Why doesn’t Florida just sink into the ocean?”

“That’s not helpful,” he said. “If Florida sinks into the ocean I sink with it, so I guess you really don’t care about me or anyone else who lives here.”

It’s far from only political developments that trigger the check-ins. Transplants described rolling their eyes at being texted Florida Man crime stories that happened hundreds of miles away. People have checked in on Florida relatives after catching a BBC documentary called “Horizon: Swallowed by a Sinkhole.” One woman got texts from multiple family members after a handful of malaria infections were reported in the state.

Others said genuinely concerned friends and family have contacted them after reading about iguanas in toilets and alligators in swimming pools.

“Everyone automatically assumes anything that happens in Florida is happening in my vicinity,” said Plant City resident Anand Radhay. “And they literally think if they visit they’ll see alligators all over just walking down the street.”

But absolutely nothing sparks check-ins like the formation of a named storm or hurricane.

“That sends my northern family into a frenzy,” said Debora Bidwell-Tuthill. “Not to belittle the experience of the places that did recently take severe hits, but I try to tell them the media is looping video of the same fallen tree on one flooded street in a town 200 miles from me.”

The snarky Florida comments can start even before someone moves. Sarah Barnum held a yard sale near Monterey, California, last week to get ready for an upcoming move to Tampa and was surprised by how frank people were in their Florida trashing: “‘Why would you want to do that?’ ‘It’s too hot.’ ‘Gators.’ ‘The insurance is too high’.

“It’s a caricature. They think all of Florida is Florida Man running around smoking crack riding alligators with his Trump flag,” she said. “Then I ask if they’ve ever been to Florida. Nine times out of 10, their answer is no.”