It is not referred to as God’s waiting room for nothing.
Now the state of Florida — where 20 per cent of the population is aged over 65, lured there by the year-round sunshine, tax perks and pensioner-friendly resorts — is braced for an onslaught against which it seems ill prepared, as coronavirus begins to spread.
In a state where the biggest threats used to be alligators, hurricanes, broken air conditioners, bugs, sharks and sinkholes, retirees living out their golden years are terrorised by an unseen virus that until recently many still treated as part of the joke.
“Florida’s always been this untouchable paradise,” a friend’s grandmother, 74, told me. “We’ve always been like, ‘The rest of the world can do its thing . . . but leave me out of it, I’ve got a margarita to see to.’”
Checkpoints set up on two busy routes into Florida now give incoming drivers a very different message to the usual, open-arm “come on down!” on which the state previously prided itself.
Law enforcement officers screen incoming cars for New York or Louisiana licence plates, take their details and order occupants to self-quarantine for 14 days, after both states were identified as leading hotspots for the virus.
Yet Florida is already in the grip of coronavirus too, and the absence of a statewide stay-at-home order has left Ron DeSantis, the governor — who 17 months ago led the emergency response to a Category 5 hurricane — facing a new kind of storm.
Critics have labelled the checkpoints, around which anyone can navigate using the multitude of alternative routes into the state, a mere “patchwork solution” in the absence of broader internal measures to reduce the movement of its 21.3 million residents. “We cannot wait . . . we need your leadership,” ten Democratic congressional representatives urged Mr DeSantis, a Republican who prides himself on a close relationship with President Trump. Demands are increasing for Mr DeSantis to enact tougher measures and beef up actions so far only taken through individual city or county ordinances. “The window of opportunity to contain this outbreak is fast closing,” Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a congressional representative for Florida, said.
Mr DeSantis has defended his lack of tougher action with the fact that about 20 of Florida’s 67 counties do not yet have recorded cases — apparently waiting for the horse to leave the stable before bolting it.
The Villages, a sprawling community for 118,000 retirees in central Florida and a stronghold for Mr Trump, where many were quick to dismiss the pandemic as media hype, has recorded five cases and residents are lining up in golf carts for drive-through testing. My home county, Broward, and the neighbouring county of Miami-Dade, both of which have issued shelter-in-place orders, together accounted for more than half of Florida’s 4,246 confirmed cases last night — a number that soared by 840 in a day. Of those, 42 were non-residents. The state’s confirmed death toll from the virus was 56.
Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, warned last night that deaths nationwide could be between 100,000 and 200,000, with millions of cases. Mr Trump said such a toll would be show his administration had done “a very good job”. The president also announced that he was extending federal guidelines for social distancing to April 30, backing away from his promise to end them by Easter.
Field hospitals have been placed at the ready in Florida, one at Fort Lauderdale’s executive airport, another at a site usually reserved for funfairs. The car park of Miami’s Hard Rock stadium is a drive-through testing site. School car parks are being turned into feeding stations for pupils — the school system in Florida is recognised as many families’ only certain source of food.
Many local beaches are closed, but until yesterday they were not shut in St Johns county. A photograph taken on Saturday summed up Florida’s piecemeal response to the coronavirus. On the St Johns side of the beach, the sand was covered with deck chairs and sunbathers; on the Duval county side the beach was deserted. Offshore lurk cruise ships that have not been permitted to dock because they are awash with coronavirus cases.
In Broward I could still buy a gun if I wished — firearms shops remain open. Thank goodness my constitutional right to bear arms has been considered an “essential” priority in all this.
“Can you actually see the coronavirus, then?” my ten-year-old asked. “Erm….no,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, how are all those people going to shoot it then?” he replied.