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opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail

Ghosts and goblins were running amok on the suburban streets of Palm Beach County, shrieking with laughter as their candy bags filled up with treats. There were evil princesses and noble superheroes, hundreds of them, swarming driveways and front porches.

The grown-ups were dressed up, too. Some were in elaborate costumes, like Civil War uniforms and mummy wraps – and, of course, every Harry Potter outfit imaginable. There were ice cream trucks, pizza trucks and taco trucks. Many houses had fully stocked honour bars set up out front, making sure the kids weren’t the only ones having a good time.

And through it all, the running joke among parents was that the only masks in sight were those worn by the kids as parts of their costumes.

Welcome to Halloween in the Free State of Florida, a pandemic-era nickname voiced loudly and proudly by many locals to distinguish their home state from others they say have been smothered by federal government mask or vaccination mandates.

Canadians travelling to the Sunshine State, now that cross-border air travel is open and ground travel opens on Monday, should get ready to adjust their expectations – and, if they choose, their behaviour. They won’t need masks in restaurants, bars, grocery stores, shops or gyms – and it is highly unlikely anyone will ask them for proof of vaccination. Many Florida businesses ask employees to wear masks, and those who aren’t vaccinated to undergo regular testing, but customers are free to do as they please.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has drawn heavy fire from detractors, particularly some news media, for staunchly refusing to impose mask or vaccination mandates. He has opted instead to put what he says are the rights and freedoms of his constituents ahead of such control mechanisms, which he argues have yet to show consistent effectiveness in combatting the virus.

Now, before shaking your head in disapproval and telling your favourite Florida Man joke, consider this: Last week, Florida recorded the lowest COVID-19 case rate in the entire U.S., including states like California and New York that have been relentless with mask and vaccination mandates.

“We’re proud to have stood firm in protecting liberty throughout the pandemic,” Florida’s Lieutenant Governor, Jeanette Nunez, said in a statement announcing the improvement in Florida’s rates. “Governor DeSantis’ approach was guided by science, data and pragmatism, not fear and alarmist narratives.”

The latest statistics marked a sharp reversal from late summer, when Florida’s numbers were the most dismal in the country, driven by the much-publicized Delta variant of the virus.

To be sure, Florida endured considerable suffering to get here. But now, by dint of some combination of vaccination, natural immunity and maybe a little luck, it has arrived at a better place – at least for now. The development has stunned commentators on the left, in part because it flies in the face of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 narrative, which holds that mask and vaccine mandates are the only way out of the pandemic.

Consistent with the fact that everything related to the pandemic has been politicized, the comeback has also generated controversy about the media’s reaction to the numbers. When Florida’s infection rates were high, the media was subjecting Mr. DeSantis to daily lashings. Now that the numbers are down, it’s crickets.

That fact was not lost on The Wall Street Journal. This week it published an opinion piece under the headline “Media Ignore Florida Covid Recovery” that called out several prominent U.S. media outlets for their bias.

The article suggested that journalists credited California Governor Gavin Newsom for a similar turnaround “but won’t stop vilifying Ron DeSantis.” In particular, it criticized The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Bloomberg and MSNBC for ignoring or playing down Florida’s improving rates.

“They were writing non-stop negative stories about COVID in Florida and implying that it was the Governor’s fault,” Mr. DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said in an interview with Fox News about the new numbers. “But now that we have the lowest infection rate in the entire country, those same media outlets are silent. So, you would think if it was his fault at the peak why isn’t it his credit right now?”

Ms. Pushaw added: “It just shows they’re using this for their own political ends, their own ends, they’re not even being consistent with it.”

Whether or not Mr. DeSantis’s strategy will prevail over the longer term remains to be seen. We have learned the only predictable thing about the virus is that it is unpredictable, and Florida’s rates – like those in other regions – could boomerang, as they have several times over the course of the pandemic.

What is certain is this: Partisan sniping over management of the pandemic will continue as long as there is political hay to be made.

In the meantime, visiting Canadians take note: The best telltales for locals to know you’re a tourist are no longer out-of-state plates or sunburns – they’re your masks and vaccination passports out and ready for inspection.

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