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The Tale of Two Floridas – One Fears the Coronavirus, The Other Does Not

In Florida, it’s the best of times and the worst of times, depending on who you ask. Some may also say it’s the age of foolishness—with the number of Floridians opting not to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic. As of today, more than 9,100 Florida residents have died after contracting COVID-19. That's a fraction of the 557,000 Floridians who have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Despite those statistics, Floridians disagree about wearing masks in public, wanting to reopen classrooms for in-person learning, and kickstarting sports—most notably college football.

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On the Florida Roundup, hosts Melissa Ross and Tom Hudson spoke to Craig Pittman of the Florida Phoenix, Fabiola Santiago of the Miami Herald, and Mark Woods from the Florida Times-Union about how COVID-19 is dividing an already split state.

Melissa Ross: Mark, a teacher in Jacksonville where you and I both work, went viral this week because she posted her obituary on Facebook. She's going back into the classroom next week but said that she's doing it kicking and screaming—that she's begged the district and the state to go to all virtual learning. We have a hybrid plan in Jacksonville, as do many other districts around the state. This, to me, is a symbol of how divided we are here in Florida as to how best to proceed safely in this pandemic. As you talk to people who don't always agree on these issues, what are you hearing about this?

MARK WOODS: This is such a gut-wrenching time for parents, for administrators. And I do really feel for teachers. You know, when we tried to have the RNC here in Jacksonville, that was clear cut for me that this should not happen with schools. I mean, there's clearly scientific reasons not to have them open. But then there's also scientific reasons why kids need to be in schools.

I did a column this past week about this local teacher who's been teaching visual arts for 40 years. He's 64 years old. He wants to be back in the classroom, and to understand his perspective, you kind of have to go back to his childhood, growing up in poverty, all kinds of issues at home. He said that teachers saved his life. And while he didn't really put it quite this dramatically, he's willing to risk his life to save some students now. But I really feel for teachers in this. I feel for parents. I don't think there's an easy answer on how to approach. I wish we had done better getting it under control. So there was an easier answer now.

Melissa Ross: If we had handled this more proactively from the outset, teachers, and students and all of us, we wouldn't be in the fix we're in now, and perhaps we might not be as divided as we are.

CRAIG PITTMAN: Correct. And the big problem here, I think, is that the people in charge are not listening to the scientists and the doctors. That the Hillsborough School Board took the action it took at the at the urging of local doctors who said, "Don't open up, you know, let the kids learn online." And so they said, "Okay, we're going to go online." And then the governor and the education commissioner came down on them hard and said, "You can't do that." Meanwhile, they're pushing football and so forth. But the governor's mansion isn't open for tours. So it seems to me that there's a kind of a double standard here.

Tom Hudson: Fabiola, Craig, each of you has decades of experience here in Florida. You know this state well. Have you seen it? Have you experienced the divisiveness, the friction, political, or otherwise at any other moment that you can think of, Craig?

CRAIG PITTMAN: I think this is something that's been coming for a while. I mean, bear in mind that in Florida, we should call ourselves the recount state. Our elections are so very close every time that we end up in a recount. I think that's one of the reasons why we're such a good symbol for the rest of the country.

We’re sort of famous for being divided. Look at 2000 when we had that recount guarantee nobody's going to name a child Chad for the next 50 years. So I guess the difference is the anger and the scorn that you hear now, that's sort of a fresh element to me. And it's very disappointing to me because we as Floridians, we're kind of in this boat together and we need to start bailing pretty quick.

Tom Hudson: Fabi, how about from your experience?

FABIOLA SANTIAGO: I've experienced this divisiveness at a heightened level since 2016. I've lost family and friends to President Trump’s time in office. But interestingly enough, with COVID there's been also a sort of return of my credibility among the same family and friends, except for the absolute and total deniers.

I did have one call COVID "this COVID nonsense." He said, "We're canceling a party because of this COVID nonsense." I felt that phrase, in itself, shows how he thinks about things. But in the community itself, this divisiveness has been there. We saw it during the recent marches of the Black Lives Matter. And the Cubanos for Trump marches where very few people were wearing them out in the Trump rally. And, you know, almost everyone was wearing a mask in the Black Lives Matter rally.

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Denise Royal