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Guest Column
‘Or else!’: Some Florida lessons about caring during COVID | Column
A Tampa grandpa ponders Gov. DeSantis’ pandemic legacy — so far.
Guyano Dulcio helps his son Tayden, 8, with his mask before school on Sept. 22 at Tamarac Elementary School in Broward. The dad is doing the right thing to help look out for others.
Guyano Dulcio helps his son Tayden, 8, with his mask before school on Sept. 22 at Tamarac Elementary School in Broward. The dad is doing the right thing to help look out for others. [ JOE CAVARETTA | South Florida ]
Published Sep. 30, 2021

It’s getting to be a routine. Cane by the door, mask on the knob, I head off to drive my granddaughters to their extracurricular activities. Since I’m vaxxed but immunocompromised, I need to know if the health situation at their school has changed. It’s more than curiosity; I have skin in the game, even if it’s a little saggy.

“So are most of the kids in your school still wearing masks?” I again ask my older granddaughter, who’s in second grade at a public school in Tampa.

“Well, not Bobby,” she says (not his real name). “He says he doesn’t have to.”

Barry Golson
Barry Golson [ Ana Acosta ]

I am driving her alone to her weekly after-school music lesson. Our best discussions, on all matters of importance — morality, state, religion, Paw Patrol — take place in the car. The dialogue wafts from back to front, windows partly down, with glances in the mirror.

“What do you think about what Bobby does?” I ask.

She pauses. “Selfish.”

“What does that mean to you?”

“That he doesn’t care about others. Just himself.”

“How do you know he’s being selfish?”

“Well, I was drawing last week, and I asked Bobby if I could use his green marker. He’s got a whole box, he wasn’t using them. He said no, why should I? That’s just selfish.”

“Why do you suppose he acts that way?”

“I don’t know. His family, maybe?”

“What does your family teach you? Mommy, Daddy?”

“To share.” A pause. “Or…”

“Or what?”

“Or else?

Well, yes. She may have heard that from us. Concern for others isn’t necessarily inborn. You’ve got to be carefully taught, and all that. Persuasion with children is preferable, but sometimes mandates are necessary. Hey! Stop the rough-housing! Now! …Get off your sister’s head! Why? Because you’re hurting her, that’s why. How do you think she feels? Knock it off, or else!

In my life, that childhood lesson was supposed to mature into the golden rule, doing unto others, life as a compromise. Or, for my rock-and-roll inclined generation, the profound Rolling Stones lyric, “You can’t always get what you want.” How well that stuck with my boomer age-mates is an open question. As it is with generations following mine.

I just returned from a careful visit to New York City for a family reunion, the first since the beginning of the pandemic. With the resurgence of the virus, and the delta variant, I’d been nervous about flying and mingling. I’m double-vaxxed, with a booster in the offing, but for the immunocompromised, the rules are different. I can’t be totally certain I’m protected. I wondered, Why leave the safety of my Tampa apartment, and my small family circle, to go to one of the most crowded places in the country?

I did my research. It seemed like a reasonable risk. With my doctor offering advice on how to stay protected, I flew north for just a couple of days. Great family gathering, everyone vaxxed, but only elbow hugs for me. The weather was fine in the Big Apple, bare faces outside, masks indoors. Even kids. Vax certificates were being checked at bars and restaurants, no big deal that I could see. In Florida, wearing masks, much less demanding vaccine proof, can lead to hostilities. Or fines from the governor for businesses.

As I looked around rough, tough, in-your-face New York City, I saw only compliance. Some grumbling, yes. But in a city famous for its independent, fuhgeddaboudit truculence, people seemed mostly to be playing by the rules. There was a CDC advisory to wear masks in crowded locations indoors — restaurants, coffee shops, transportation hubs, theaters, schools —and for the most part, New Yorkers were going along with it. Prodded by a mandate. They were even being carded. With exceptions, people complied.

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Returning to Tampa, as I took a walk around my neighborhood, peering into restaurants and cafes, I saw minimal mask use — during this, the worst surge in 18 months. In high-rise buildings in my area, despite signs in the lobby urging mask use and distancing, elevators were crowded and bare-faced. Supermarkets still had their staffs wear masks, but masking by customers was … you know … optional. Personal choice.

My neighbors, younger than we — who isn’t? — are unfailingly courteous, and probably vaxxed. They may feel, perhaps understandably, that they got their vaccinations, so the only victims are going to be the voluntarily unvaxxed. I know how they feel; I felt that way myself, for a time. Tough noogies, anti-vaxxers.

But why the geographical difference? Though no state has been spared the ups and downs of this virus, for now the Southern states are in a public health crisis, while the East and Far West are coping. Where vaccination rates are lowest, people are dying.

Here’s the thing, though: Vaccination rates are okay in New York, but not that much higher than in my home, Hillsborough County.

Yet in New York City, the most densely populated city in the country, infections, hospitalizations and fatalities are way, way down.

In wide open, breezy, Tampa Bay, hospitalizations and fatalities have been way, way up.

Here, ICU units have been at 85 percent capacity, and COVID deaths have stayed stubbornly high. (Some numbers are dropping from an all-time August high, a hopeful sign, but one Gov. Ron DeSantis attributes to use of monoclonal antibody treatment. More on this shortly.)

On the face of it, then, there shouldn’t be a big difference. Roughly speaking, similar numbers of vaccinated and vaccine-hesitant. It must be something else.

Could it be … drumroll, please … masks and precautions?

This next part isn’t in the least scientific, but I can’t help thinking it.

In New York, it seemed to me, strangers appeared to be looking out for each other. Aided by a mandate, to be sure. At least where I stayed in the Big Apple, amid taxi honks, and careening bikes, and Hey-I’m-walkin’-here, I thought I felt a community spirit. It seemed to me the New Yorkers I saw, presumably vaxxed, weren’t just following a mandate. They weren’t masking to protect themselves, but to protect others: the unvaccinated, the kids, the immunocompromised. (Am I being naïve? Okay, I’ll default to, “Watch out for others … Or else.”)

In Tampa, my adopted home town, where I genuinely enjoy living, I couldn’t help feeling that many strangers have been persuaded it’s all right not to care about anyone but themselves. Not because people are fundamentally any different. In fact, people here are gentler, friendlier, and my wife and I appreciate that. But when it comes to accepting public-health science, the signals from the top are sharply different. Here, our state leadership says, Live your own life. No mandates. Not even at the worst of times. Not even for a while. Because mandates are bad. Personal freedoms, you know.

I knew I was really back home when I sat down to read DeSantis’ latest broadside. During a news conference, he declared that vaccinating was a personal choice. “It’s about your health and whether you want that protection or not. It really doesn’t impact me, or anyone else.”

Meaning, the decisions of the unvaccinated are their own, have no effect on their neighbors.

I read it twice. Our governor was reaching a new, head-swiveling level in his contest to prize personal freedoms over the common good. At this newspaper and others, the reaction was swift. The Miami Herald editorialized, “No effect? Talk about a profile in selfishness.I thought of the 75 million Americans under 18 who have had little choice in being vaccinated, or the 10 million, like myself, with at-risk immune conditions.

I’ve been writing for 18 months about the puzzling, tragic trail of logical fallacies of this Ivy-educated governor: Support in-person classes; but ban mandates that would help keep kids safe at school. Support vaccines early; but outlaw requiring masks that would keep people safe until vaccinated. Support the rights of businesses; but threaten them if they try to ask for proof of health. Downplay vaccine resistance; support treatment after infection instead.

Monoclonal antibody treatment is the latest of his push-pull, passive-aggressive moves. The treatment, which involves lengthy infusions, has proved effective for those infected. It was given to DeSantis’ mentor, Donald Trump, after he contracted COVID (and then recovered, whipping off his mask in whee-look-at-me! contempt). As treatment, it’s promising, if given early after infection.

It’s a valid effort. If anything happened to me, I’d be eager to avail myself of it. I’m glad the governor is on it, as he sets up centers for monoclonal treatment for those infected. Typically, he’s politicized it by attacking President Joe Biden, who is trying to equalize national distribution for the treatment, which may lessen Florida’s supplies. Selfishly, I can sympathize with the impulse. I hope the treatment is available to all who may need it.

But seen from afar, as public health policy, it’s just nuts.

DeSantis is doing all he can, sometimes with near-fanaticism, to discourage required mitigation and prevention — yet at the same time, setting up MASH-like medical units all over to treat those who get sick. Sick, in part, due to his policies. It’s like discouraging seat-belt use — and then setting up roadside trauma units for crash victims. And bragging about how many victims are saved.

It’s the ideology, of course. DeSantis gets something partly right, then twists it to fit an agenda. He doubles down, again and again, never changing, even as the facts change. To some, sticking to one’s original position, no matter what, is a signal that you’re a tough guy. So in Florida, despite mutations, lethal surges, and new data on kids, DeSantis just won’t budge. ( I always think about economist John Maynard Keynes who is supposed to have once replied, to someone charging him with being inconsistent: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”)

Earlier, DeSantis picked out a few studies claiming school infection rates were the same whether or not masks were used, predictably kicking up hysteria across the state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention then reported new findings — based on hard, current cases since schools reopened — showing that 87.5 percent of school-associated COVID outbreaks were in schools without mask requirements. Not a peep from DeSantis, no pulling back. More doubling down. Meanwhile, angry parents continued shouting down principals and administrators — whose salaries continued to be docked by the state. Misinformation has ugly consequences. So does a stubborn refusal to recant.

And so, Florida continues to lead the big states, by big margins, in infections and the death rate. Even if the surge drops, as it will, the question will remain: How many deaths or hospitalizations were preventable? (Studies show: most.) What if DeSantis had asked for just a temporary mandate, during the surge? What if both vaccination and masks had been encouraged? What would DeSantis have lost? What would we have gained? A wag once described Trump’s governing style as “malevolence tempered by incompetence.” Will the DeSantis administration be remembered as “competence tempered by deadly intransigence?”

I wrote last year about living in Florida, feeling we were all part of a lab experiment to test a wild-scientist theory about achieving “herd immunity” through natural selection. DeSantis consorted with Trump whisperer Scott Atlas, the Stanford radiologist who advocated “natural” spread in 2020. (While “protecting the vulnerable,” of course. More than 54,000 have died in Florida, none of them “invulnerable,” it turns out.) In my columns, I wondered, as Florida’s crowded bars and restaurants remained happily open to all, if someone at the top actually wanted the virus to spread. At the time, Dr. Anthony Fauci called the theory “dangerous” and “nonsense.” Worldwide, the global medical establishment rejected it over a year ago.

Not here. Right on cue last week, as helicopters descended on overcrowded Tampa General Hospital across the channel, DeSantis replaced our state’s surgeon general with a curious choice. The new head of Florida’s Department of Health is Dr. Joseph Ladapo, another elite-educated official with a record of extreme skepticism on masks and a reputation for supporting bogus cures, such as hydroxychloroquine. He’s written op-eds about the potential ill effects of vaccines.

And guess what: As Times-Herald Tallahassee bureau staffers Lawrence Mower, Ana Ceballos and Kirby Wilson have reported, Ladapo is “friendly” with the fringe group of scientists known for their “Great Barrington Declaration.” Yep, the group linked with the very same Scott Atlas who advised Trump and DeSantis on “natural spread.” The group gave a scientific sheen to the let-’er-rip policies that, in Florida, may have worked only too well.

Asked by the reporters what mitigation efforts he would support in schools, Ladapo said he would “reject fear” as a public health strategy. He said again that he thought too much emphasis had been placed on vaccines. As for school mitigation, “It’s complicated ... we’re discussing.”

Well, I guess it’s not that complicated. One day later, Ladapo issued an “executive order” to shut down the efforts of 13 school boards to require mask use in defiance of Gov. DeSantis. He followed that up by taking quarantining-after-exposure decisions out of school officials’ hands and leaving it to parents’ “sole discretion.”

Yes, it’s parents’ choice again in Tampa Bay. Freedom! The same don’t-tell-me-what-to-do parents — who willingly accept school vaccination mandates for measles, mumps and whooping cough — will now make their “own” decisions about life-and-death risks for all on COVID, which is the most scientifically confounding pandemic in a century.

Concern for others? Not our problem. As the new guy says, it’s good to reject fear. Live your own life.

But it’s hard not to wish for something else. Another time. A sense of we’re-in-this-together that I felt growing up after World War II, despite the glaring inequities we ignored. As a kid who wanted to write all his life, I got my sense of being an American from the arrival of The Saturday Evening Post that I read cover-to-cover every week. The covers of Norman Rockwell.

Despite Rockwell’s reputation as a sentimental illustrator, Rockwell often commented acerbically on his times. The little Black girl being accompanied to school by U.S. marshals. A favorite of mine was the scamp in the doctor’s office who’d just been vaccinated, standing on a chair to check the doctor’s diploma on the wall. Parents got it. Check for yourself, but trust the experts. For everybody’s sake.

I’m eager and willing to drive my granddaughters to their music classes. I learn a lot about their life, and mine, from the back booster seats. But as we head into the fall, I’m going to have to keep track of how many more kids like “Bobby” there will be.

Or else.

Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner).