MIAMI — Other than New York, no big city in the United States has been struggling with more coronavirus cases in recent weeks than Miami. But you would hardly know that if you lived here.
Spring breakers flock to the beaches. Cars cram the highways. Weekend restaurant reservations have almost become necessary again. Banners on Miami Beach read “Vacation responsibly,” the subtext being, Of course you’re going to vacation.
Much of life seems normal, and not just because of the return of Florida’s winter tourism season, which was cut short last year a few weeks into the pandemic.
Florida reopened months before much of the rest of the nation, which only in recent days has begun to emerge from the better part of a year under lockdown. Live music returned this weekend to the bars of New Orleans. Crowds were pouring into restaurants in Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo. Movie theaters in California were poised to open their doors soon.
Texas reopened this past week from one side of the state to the other, with spring breakers reveling on South Padre Island. Playgrounds are packed in Chicago, and the Texas Rangers are preparing to fill their stadium to capacity next month for the debut of, by god, baseball season.
None of this feels particularly new in Florida, which slowed during the worst of the pandemic but only briefly closed. To the contrary, much of the state has a boomtown feel, a sense of making up for months of lost time.
Realtors cold-knock on doors looking to recruit sellers to the sizzling housing market, in part because New Yorkers and Californians keep moving in. The unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, compared to 9.3 percent in California, 8.7 percent in New York and 6.9 percent in Texas. That debate about opening schools? It came and went months ago. Children have been in classrooms since the fall.
For better or worse, Florida’s experiment in returning to life-as-it-used-to-be offers a glimpse of what many states are likely to face in the weeks ahead, as they move into the next phase of the pandemic — the part where it starts to be over.
“If you look at South Florida right now, this place is booming,” Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, recently gloated. “Los Angeles isn’t booming. New York City isn’t booming.”
To call what is happening in Florida an actual boom is a stretch. Though the state was fully reopened by late September, its tourism-dependent economy remains hobbled. A $2.7 billion budget deficit will need an injection of federal stimulus money. Orange County, where Orlando is, saw the lowest tourist development tax collections for any January since 2002.
Yet in a country just coming out of the morose grip of coronavirus lockdowns, Florida feels unmistakably hot. (And not just because of global warming.)
“You can live like a human being,” Mr. DeSantis said. “You aren’t locked down. People aren’t miserable.” President Biden’s new hope of getting Americans together to celebrate with their families on the Fourth of July? “We’ve been doing that for over a year in Florida,” the governor boasted.
To bask in that feeling — even if it is only that — is to ignore the heavy toll the coronavirus exacted in Florida, one that is not yet over.
More than 32,000 Floridians have died, an unthinkable cost that the state’s leaders rarely acknowledge. Miami-Dade County averaged more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the past two weeks, one of the nation’s most serious outbreaks. And Florida is thought to have the highest concentration of B.1.1.7, the more contagious virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.
Yet Florida’s death rate is no worse than the national average, and better than that of some other states that imposed more restrictions, despite its large numbers of retirees, young partyers and tourists. Caseloads and hospitalizations across most of the state are down. The tens of thousands of people who died were in some ways the result of an unspoken grand bargain — the price paid for keeping as many people as possible employed, educated and, some Floridians would argue, sane.
“There’s no better place to have spent the pandemic than Miami,” said Patricia García, a freelance writer who moved from New York in 2017. Her 5-year-old daughter has been in school since August. She put her 1-year-old son in day care in July.
Ms. García, a 34-year-old Democrat, said she found herself unexpectedly defending Mr. DeSantis’s policies to her friends up north.
“People here, they’ve been able to work. The kids have been able to go to school,” she said. “We have this reputation in Florida of being all Florida Man and crazyland. But I’d much rather be in Florida than California, New York or Chicago.”
The out-of-state relatives of retirees worried about the risks to their loved ones. But Mr. DeSantis made it a priority to protect the state’s many older residents, banning visitors in nursing homes until October and swiftly moving people 65 and older (and beginning on Monday, 60 and older) to the front of the line for vaccines. Florida also did not allow hospitals to discharge coronavirus patients back into nursing homes, unlike New York, a policy that likely avoided more fatalities.
However, long-term care facilities still account for a third of Florida’s virus deaths, and while deaths are at their lowest levels since November, other signposts are more worrying. The number of Covid-19 patients in the critical care unit at Jackson Health, the state’s largest public hospital system, increased during one week this month by 10 percent before starting to decline, said Dr. Peter G. Paige, the chief clinical officer. “Obviously, we have to keep our guard up,” he said.
Florida never imposed a statewide mask mandate, and the governor in September banned local governments from enforcing their own local orders. This week, Mr. DeSantis wiped out any outstanding fines related to virus restrictions, stating that most of the restrictions “have not been effective.”
Florida ranks in the lower third of states when it comes to vaccinations. The rollout has been confusing and uneven: After weeks of trying unsuccessfully to get a shot, Joan Brewer, 82, who lives in Palm Beach County, thought she had snagged an appointment at a nearby Publix grocery store — only to find after registering that the slot was in Gulf Breeze, in the Florida Panhandle.
“That’s a nine-and-a-half hour drive, without stops!” she said. (She eventually got a dose at a Federal Emergency Management Agency mass vaccination site in Miami.)
Try to buy a home and the experience is frustrating for a different reason: an open house will have 30 cars parked outside. Though Florida’s population growth has slowed during the pandemic, documentary stamps, an excise tax on real estate sales, were 15 percent higher in January than they were a year ago. Filing fees for new corporations were 14 percent higher.
Alex Pis-Dudot, a real estate agent who has recently knocked on doors in the upscale Miami suburb of Coral Gables to inquire if homeowners might want to sell, said he recently contacted another agent about a house that had been listed for less than a week. She told him that 20 couples had made appointments to see it — and that the seller had already gotten an offer from an investor for $20,000 above the asking price.
“It’s a circus right now,” Mr. Pis-Dudot said.
Macchialina, a well-loved Italian restaurant on Miami Beach, closed for a few days this month after a staff member tested positive for the virus. But the restaurant has been able to operate through most of the pandemic thanks to Florida’s early reopening (and an outdoor courtyard).
During the worst of the pandemic, Macchialina laid off 25 employees. Business is still down but “we can’t complain,” said Michael Pirolo, the executive chef and owner. His brother had to permanently shutter his Brooklyn restaurant last April thanks to the long lockdown there.
“We kind of get this bad rap around the world for not following the rules, because we’re open,” Jacqueline Pirolo, his sister and managing partner, said of Florida. “But for the most part, our clientele that comes to dine with us follows all the rules. We’ve been able to open and to do this safely, and that’s kind of the middle ground.”
Rolando Aedo, the chief operating officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said about half of restaurant workers and 90 percent of hotel workers were laid off last year, a loss of about 150,000 jobs practically overnight. Now the volume of reservations on the OpenTable app is at about 97 percent of what it was just before the pandemic hit Florida, he said. Hotel occupancy is down nearly 20 percent, which is better than what industry watchers expected.
Hotels are busily booking rooms on Miami Beach, despite the city’s efforts to dissuade spring breakers from coming.
“Unfortunately, we’re getting too many people looking to get loose,” Mayor Dan Gelber said. “Letting loose is precisely what we don’t want.”
At sunset recently, couples and small groups strolled down Ocean Drive, flitting in and out of sidewalk restaurants. Nightclubs like Mango’s Tropical Cafe, a South Beach staple, remain closed. Garage parking costs a whopping $20, part of a spring break price hike.
A cluster of friends from Indiana walked off the beach last week in towels and swimsuits. “It was cold at home, and we were trying to have a good time,” said Alli Hahn, 22, a college senior.
They found round-trip plane tickets for $96 and a cheap Airbnb rental.
So far, it has been a subdued getaway. Police officers are enforcing a ban on beach drinking. Curfew is at midnight.
But it’s Florida, and it’s spring.
“After a full year, I just needed to get away,” said Christine Gordon, 22.
A sign nearby reminded them to “wear a mask at all times.” None of them did.