February 22, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Florida and California are remarkably similar for their warm climates, beaches, tourist destinations, immigrant populations, and more, but both states could not be more different with respect to the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. Florida operates on close to zero pandemic-related restrictions whereas California maintains strict lockdown policies. 

In California, virtually all public schools are closed, restaurants must follow unwavering capacity limits, travelers must quarantine for ten days, and on the list goes. Meanwhile, Florida’s schools are all open for in-person instruction, statewide restrictions do not exist for restaurants, and there is no travel quarantine implemented by the state. All of these details point to Florida’s current stringency score being low at 33.8 compared to California’s 58.8. 

While the media labels California Governor Newsom a “lockdown fanatic” for his authoritarian approach, they call Florida Governor DeSantis “DeathSantis” for being too relaxed. The two governors are polar opposites in how they handle Covid, but their outcomes are peculiarly similar.

In total, California experienced more cases per 100,000 people, while Florida had more deaths per 100,000 people. During the summer of 2020, cases and deaths spiked higher in Florida, but the course switched from November through January as cases and deaths peaked in California.

One reason why Florida has more deaths but not cases is that the elderly – those who are more vulnerable to the virus – account for a larger portion of Florida’s population. In fact, Florida has the second largest 65+ population at about 16.5%, but ranks #27 for deaths in the US. The elderly in California, on the other hand, comprise 14.8% of the state population. Still, California has worse outcomes within nursing homes at 2.27 deaths per 100 residents, while Florida sees 0.72 deaths per 100 residents. The chart below provides a side-by-side comparison to show that the statistics are similar and that one state did not clearly do better than the other.

Rather, the outcomes suggest that lockdown measures might not have a significant impact on lowering the number of Covid cases and deaths. But a more comprehensive look at the economic and social well-being of the states potentially reveals a greater disparity. 

First, the unemployment rate in Florida remains consistently lower than California’s. As of December 2020, Florida’s (preliminary) unemployment rate was at 6.1% while California’s was 9%. This means that a staggering 1,700,383 people are unemployed in California, compared to 614,327 in Florida. (The gap between the states is still immense when the numbers are adjusted for population.)

The gross domestic product (GDP) of both states is similar, though Florida’s annual rate is slightly higher. California ranks as the largest economy – in terms of GDP – of all US states and even exceeds the United Kingdom’s. So, the drop in California’s GDP is not only steeper than Florida’s but also takes a greater toll on the entire United States economy.

Another revealing factor is inbound and outbound migration. According to 2020 data collected from two moving companies (U-Haul and United Van Lines), Florida is among the top states for inbound migration, and California ranks high for outbound migration. While these migration patterns follow previous 2019 moving trends, lockdown policies still might play into other factors for why people are leaving California, including taxes, cost of living, and affordable housing. Florida conversely attracts movers for having no income tax, low housing prices, and agreeable climate.

Mobility may also indicate some level of economic activity by showing the degree of movement made by residents through cell phone data. The graph below specifically looks at travel to retail and recreation locations, which ultimately is telling. Between April and June 2020 and November 2020 up to now, Florida evidently experienced more movement. 

This data indicates that Florida residents are more mobile than Californians and are thus generating more economic activity within the state. Not only does this have important implications for how policy influences human behavior, the data also shows that Floridians are more comfortable moving around in their state, which could be attributed to reliable information about Covid or higher risk tolerance among the population.

While Governor Newsom keeps his state at a high level of lockdowns despite glaring consequences, Californians are becoming increasingly irate as they sign a petition for a recall against him. As of February 2nd, Newsom’s approval rating rests at 46%, a sharp drop from September’s rating of 64%. Meanwhile, DeSantis is in the green with an approval rating of 54%.

The states’ contrasting lockdown policies may lead to a future that looks very different. More and more people flee California to places like Tennessee, Texas, and Florida as they continue to be restricted in their freedom to work and go to school. For example, California is home to numerous tech companies, employing millions of people, but with remote working and a desire for cheaper living conditions and less authoritarian governments, Californians may continue to exit.

California and Florida provide a clear example for the dubious efficacy of Covid-19 restrictions. Their disparities elucidate the enduring costs of lockdowns with regard to the economy and livelihoods of residents. The states also pave the way for us to better understand whether authoritarian measures truly work in controlling a virus and, on a greater scale, the trajectory of human behavior.

Amelia Janaskie

Amelia Janaskie is a Research Associate at the American Institute for Economic Research. She graduated from the College of Charleston Honors College in May 2020 with a B.S. in Economics and minor in English. During her time in college, she was a Market Process Scholar with the Center for Public Choice and Market Process.

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