Pitching the slogan “Vacation To Freedom,” Gov. DeSantis says freedom from COVID restrictions, even when transmission of the virus is high, is good for FL’s tourism industry. At left is VISIT FLORIDA CEO Dana Young. Screenshot: The Florida Channel
The governor who once ordered inbound motorists and air travelers from COVID hot spots to self-isolate before traveling within Florida now invites the world to come for a “vacation to freedom.”
“You can come to Florida and you can do what you want to do. You’re not going to be forced to show medical papers. You’re not going to be restricted. You’re not going to be mandated,” said Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press conference Tuesday in Fort Walton Beach to tout new tourism statistics.
“So many people over the last year and half have said, OK, I need to escape from the burdens of wherever I’m at, with the mandates and the lockdowns, and just come to Florida for, yes, sunshine, yes, beaches, theme parks, all these things, but I want to experience freedom and be able to be treated like a free individual.”
The tone reflects DeSantis’ opposition to measures recommended by national health authorities for tamping down the spread of COVID-19 and its ongoing series of variants. He forbids mask mandates, vaccine mandates, business lockdowns, school shutdowns, and attempts to require vaccine “passports.”
That wasn’t DeSantis’ position in spring of 2020, when he was trying to stop COVID from spreading to Florida.
At that time, brick-and-mortar schools were closed during the pandemic, and tens of thousands of students did online learning at home.
DeSantis required Florida Highway Patrol officers to operate highway checkpoints to stop incoming motorists, inquire about their points of origin, and order those arriving from Louisiana and any other hot spots to self-isolate for 14 days (to watch for COVID contagion) before traveling in Florida. Likewise, he ordered air travelers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to self-isolate for 14 days before moving about in the state.
On Tuesday, he claimed Florida is now a top destination for people longing for the unfettered life, and he credited his “freedom” policies for making it so.
“It’s a free state. You can make your own decisions about what you want [to do] or not do. … We’re not doing any restrictions,” he said.
VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism marketing organization, reports that 30.9 million tourists, most of them domestic travelers, visited in the last quarter of last year. While that was a giant surge compared with the COVID-infected fourth quarter of 2020 (19.1 million tourists), it was only a slight increase over the same period in 2019 (30.8 million), following a long trend of steady growth in total tourism year over year.
At the same press conference, VISIT FLORIDA CEO Dana Young touted the slight increase over pre-COVID visitation as an “overwhelming” achievement made possible by DeSantis’ “freedom” approach and him enabling the marketing organization to “aggressively and unapologetically market our state to the United States and to the rest of the world.”
“We are killing it here in Florida,” Young said. “The operative word is freedom … and they find it here in Florida.”
Meanwhile, Florida’s COVID vaccination rate remains relatively modest: at 65.6 percent, a little above the national average. The highest is about 80 percent in Vermont and Rhode Island; the lowest is 49.9 percent in Alabama, as of Feb. 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID infections and hospitalizations surged in the fall, when the delta variant was dominant, and again in January, when the omicron strain took over. Those rates fell sharply in recent weeks, according to CDC data.
The CDC COVID tracker says more than 70,404 people were diagnosed with COVID in the last seven days, and 111 of them died.
Through Monday, nearly 68,000 people had died of COVID-19 in Florida, according to the CDC. At least 5,754,104 have been diagnosed with COVID at some point. The data does not include unreported COVID test results.
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