Life

Escape from Florida: My 2,400-km drive back to the sanity of Canada

Stephen Maher: In Florida, the beaches were open, people filled bars, and many just couldn't seem to grasp 'why everyone is panicking'

Two weeks ago I was fixing up an old sailboat on the Gulf Coast of Florida when I realized that the coronavirus might be bad enough that I would have to return to Canada.

I told the man I had hired to help me fix the troubled diesel engine of the old boat that I might go home because I was afraid the virus was going to get worse.

Ron (not his real name), a funny, hard-working, good-natured guy in his 60s, had let me know that he was a Donald Trump supporter. He suspected that, as a Canadian, I was not, and we had exchanged strained but polite comments about our political differences. As a visitor, I felt I shouldn’t express my opinion of the American president.

I slipped, though, when I let him know that I might be going home early. 

“I am worried about the virus,” I said. “I know that Trump thinks it’s not a big thing, but it is.”

“Well,” he said, pausing, likely biting his tongue. “We don’t see it that way.”

At the time, Trump was still minimizing the risk posed by the virus, and Fox News was broadcasting segments suggesting that criticism of the president over the issue was an attempt to impeach him. But it seemed obvious to me that the facts were bad and would get worse.

READ: A heat map of coronavirus cases in Canada

On March 12, a day after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, I texted Ron to ask about a family trip he had planned to Disney World in Orlando the next day.

“Are you still going to Disney?” 

“Yes.”

“Wash your hands a lot,” I texted. “Stay away from the buffets. Not that you asked my opinion. I am researching this virus for work and am getting freaked out.”

He didn’t reply, and, as it turned out, Disney decided to close its parks that day.

I was researching the virus for a Maclean’s article, and had become alarmed at a webinar with University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman, where he described the way that the virus could spread rapidly, undiscovered by medical officials, until there were deaths, at which point officials would learn there were hundreds of cases.

As the horrible news from Italy started to register in Canada, and authorities started to take action, I was disturbed by the inaction around me in Florida.

The Gulf Coast of Florida, where I had come to buy an old sailboat, is full of retired white people. God’s waiting room, they call it. The average age in Charlotte County is 2016 was 58, in comparison with 40 in Ottawa, where I live. 

READ MORE: How Americans underestimate the threat of the coronavirus

White American seniors are strongly pro-Trump, and so Florida is Trump country. In 2015, Charlotte County voted 62.5 per cent for him, and only 34.7 per cent for Clinton. Many trucks, lawns and boats have Trump flags or bumper stickers. One day, a power boat went back and forth along the waterfront with a huge flag flying in the wind: Trump 2020: No More Bullshit. 

Ron, and all the other Trump-supporting, Fox-watching Floridians had been told repeatedly that the virus was nothing to worry about. Bars and restaurants remained open. The Irish pub in Punta Gorda continued with St. Patricks Day celebrations. The beach at Clearwater was packed.

As I researched an article about problems with public-health information at Canadian airports, I was observing people around me act as if nothing had changed. In the bars on the waterfront at Punta Gorda, the party kept going. I could hear the Baby Boomer dad bands rocking past midnight as I lay on my boat, trying to sleep, fretting about the virus.  

Alarmed, imagining the virus spreading undiscovered, I isolated myself, stopped going to restaurants or visiting the marina. I wore gloves when I went to a pharmacy to buy a thermometer, but otherwise hid on my boat. I didn’t get ice for my icebox, drank my beer warm, went so far as to do my laundry by hand instead of going to the laundry room.

I am not generally a fearful person. I have travelled to some of the most dangerous places in the world, because I thought it was worth the risk. But I saw no reason to risk getting sick if I might avoid it by sticking to myself. 

I consulted with friends and relatives and reluctantly decided that I had to go home. I didn’t want to stop fixing up the old boat so soon, but I was afraid of getting infected in Florida, where I might run up huge debts if I needed to be hospitalized, and where I would have nobody to look after me. And I was worried about the state of the hospitals.

Florida was slow to react to the virus, and the population is old, so it was easy to imagine it turning into Lombardy, the region of northern Italy where the disease is so widespread that exhausted doctors have been forced to ration ventilators by age.

Governor Ron DeSantis, who owes his position to a key endorsement from Trump, has been reluctant to close beaches or order the kind of shutdown that other governors have ordered. Young people partied hard during spring break, leading to new infections. There is reason to worry that the virus may have already spread, undetected. 

It is hard to know yet, because Florida has been slow to test its population. By 11 a.m. on March 23, Canada had run 102,803 tests. Florida, with about half of our population, had only run 11,063 tests. 

READ: These charts show how our fight to ‘flatten the curve’ is going

When I decided to return to Canada, I called Ron to let him know I was putting the boat away.

“Our government is telling us to come home,” I said.

“And you do what your government tells you, not like us,” he joked.

It’s true. I noticed in my months in Florida this winter, that the level of trust, in government and media, is lower there than it is in Canada. There’s a kind of natural cynicism, a distrust of authority, in American civic culture. For Trump supporters, with this virus, that means there is a deep reluctance to accept the situation. Polling shows Americans are divided along partisan lines in their view of how serious it is.

I arranged for the boat to be stored in a boat yard until I can return, next year I hope, to finish fixing it up and get it out of Florida.

As I hurriedly cleaned and prepped the boat for a long layup, I stopped to chat with two grey-haired guys chatting in the yard about the virus. I told them I’d been researching it, talking to epidemiologists, and they asked me a few questions.

One of the guys—a trim, dapper man in his early 70s, wearing a checked shirt with a pack of Marlboros in the breast pocket—looked troubled. He kept turning to look away, shaking his head.

“How much worse is it than the flu?” he asked me.

I told him I’d read estimates that it killed 10 times as many people as the flu, and told him Florida risked becoming like Italy, where they had to tell old people they wouldn’t get ventilators.

He kept shaking his head.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “I don’t get why everyone is panicking.”

He said that twice, with the air of a man struggling to piece together facts that did not want to go together.

He was still shaking his head, staring in the distance, trying to work it out, when I bid him good day and went to finish wrapping up my boat.

I wanted to avoid airports, so I rented a car and stocked up on fruit and nuts and bottles of cola, so that I could avoid drive-throughs, and headed for the border. I listened to audiobooks as I drove — first The Plague, by Albert Camus, then The Stand, by Stephen King. Occasionally, I took breaks to listen to NPR newscasts, which were like chapters from the novels.

It was three days, 2,400 kilometres, from palm trees to snow, past many golden arches and Exxons, up Florida, through Georgia and the Carolinas, around Washington DC, then up through Pennsylvania and New York state. 

I tried to be careful. I didn’t want to get infected at a gas station on my way home. 

I wore disposable gloves when I filled the tank and discarded them before I got back in the car. I avoided restaurants and bathrooms. When it got cold, in upstate New York, I parked at the edge of a truck stop and changed my clothes in the darkness of the parking lot.

At first, there were a lot of RVs, trucks hauling boat trailers, snowbirds heading home. In Florida and the Carolinas, the parking lots in the malls and roadside barbecue joints were full. The further north I got, the more seriously people seemed to take the virus. In Pennsylvania and New York state, the digital highway signs—the kind that usually warn of congestion ahead—all had warnings about the virus.

A highway warning sign from somewhere near Syracuse, N.Y. (Stephen Maher)

A highway warning sign from somewhere near Syracuse, N.Y. (Stephen Maher)

At a pharmacy in Ogdensburg, where I stopped before crossing the border, the middle-aged cashier was plainly preoccupied with the news, speaking of how Governor Andrew Cuomo was going to order a lockdown, a dramatic contrast to carefree Florida.

Hertz wouldn’t let me drop off my car in Canada. “The system won’t let me do that,” said the woman I pleaded with at the Hertz call centre.

I had to get rid of the car in Ogdensburg and take an expensive cab drive across the border and up the highway to Ottawa.

The border agent was wearing a mask. She asked me where I had been, whether I had symptoms, which I didn’t. She didn’t bother asking about what I was bringing with me, as they always do in normal times. She told me I had to self-isolate for 14 days, and waited for me to confirm that I would. Then she told me that I could cross.

I was shocked, as we crossed, to find myself fighting the sudden urge to cry tears of relief.

I know it was easier than the journeys that many other Canadians made to get home in the past week, but it was stressful enough for me.

It was a reminder that my country is a relatively sane place, that I am at home here in a way I could never be in Florida. I am glad that, if worse comes to worse, I will get treated in a hospital, not because I can afford to, but because I am a resident of Ontario, and every resident of Ontario has the right to health care.

I am glad I live in a place where the beaches are closed, where there are no lineups at gun shops in troubled times.

We have a higher level of social trust in Canada—56 compared to 49 in the United States in one ranking—a quality that makes people more likely to observe quarantine advice, believe their media and public health officials during a crisis.

Canadians are divided, politically and geographically, but compared with our neighbours, our divisions are trifling. I have been impressed with the way governments of different political stripes have handled this crisis in this country. There are disagreements, as is proper in a democracy, about the best course to take, but the virus has not been turned into a political weapon, as it has in the United States, where attitudes about the illness sharply diverge on partisan lines.

I am afraid that partisan division, fuelled by a narcissistic, attention-seeking president, is going to cost the Americans dearly.

I suspect that when we have eventually run this virus into the ground, and we try to understand what worked and what didn’t, we will find that societies with high levels of social solidarity did better than societies where citizens mistrust one another. 

Social solidarity—the sense that we are all in this together—is what makes retired nurses volunteer to go back to work in the frightening hospitals, and what makes healthy young people stay home to flatten the curve.

I think social solidarity is why the curve is so flat in traditionally collectivist East Asian societies, and rising so sharply in the United States. 

In South Korea, Taiwan and Japan—modern, free-market democracies—governments and populations quickly pivoted to change behaviour. (Cultural norms around mask wearing and lower levels of obesity are likely also important factors in reducing infection and death rates in Asia.) 

I think we can see the same thing in Canada. Quebec, which has a stronger sense of social solidarity than other provinces, has been quicker to act decisively, and thus may be spared the worst of this illness. But all of Canada has handled this well, at least in comparison with our neighbour.

Consider the contrast between Justin Trudeau, who self-isolated but didn’t get tested when he learned he might have been exposed to the virus, and Rand Paul, the libertarian U.S. senator who got tested but didn’t self-isolate, exposing countless others at the gym and the pool. Paul is a rugged individualist, an Ayn Rand enthusiast, an articulate advocate for small government, but not the kind of guy you want to see at the gym.

The United States ought to be able to beat this virus more easily than any other country. The U.S.A. is Number 1 in the Global Health Security Index, which measures “functional, tested, proven capabilities for stopping outbreaks at the source.” Canada measures Number 5. South Korea, which has beaten the virus back, is at 9. But the shifting case count does not reflect those rankings. The Americans are not flattening the curve, and already Trump is talking about getting everyone back to work, which is madness.

With catastrophic leadership and a lack of social solidarity, the United States looks like it is going to get hit hard, which is tragic, because it has the resources to stop the virus in its tracks. What it doesn’t have is the leadership, the will, the social solidarity, to get equipment to health-care workers and convince everyone to stay home for a few weeks.

Almost a million Canadians came home last week from around the world as the news about this nightmare pandemic reached the snowbirds and backpackers.

We face an uncertain future, locked down with no idea when we will be free to resume normal lives, awaiting grim news from our hospitals, but we are home, in a good, well-organized place, where we can be sure that however bad things get, we will do our best to get through it together, even as we keep our distance.

It is another reminder, for anyone who needs one, that we are lucky to call this country home, and that we ought to do what we can to make sure it remains the kind of place where people look out for one another. 

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