As the COVID-19 pandemic proved the greatest public health crisis to confront the nation in a century, there was one group of Floridians who stood out among all others in the race to beat the monster.
The disaster struck with the deadly daily force of a hurricane — an invisible one that left buildings standing but hospital bed inventories crushed. Worse, it’s a storm that stayed put for nine months, and as a cold front strikes, the winds of death and sorrow appear only to be picking up speed.
Similar to a natural disaster, the coronavirus sent local governments into action. It turned out not to be the nation’s leaders or even statewide electeds, who took the lead. Rather, Florida’s Mayors found themselves on the headlines and the front lines, tested as public servants and politicians.
That became all the more pronounced thanks to a dearth of guidance from the highest officeholders of the land. President Donald Trump struggled to find a tone for the crisis, then abandoned the effort altogether in favor of base politics and denial. Gov. Ron DeSantis may be unfairly painted as a Trump stooge for adopting similar rhetoric, but there’s no denying he took a hands-off approach to Florida’s response. Rather, the state executive branch demurred to local government almost from the onset. County governments and city leaders studied Centers for Disease Control guidelines and crafted lockdown ordinances and mask requirements while managing grants and emergency resources.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wrestled with DeSantis over lockdown regulations. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor used strategy and might to adopt a stay-at-home order extending beyond her city’s limits. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry pressured neighboring jurisdictions to close down beaches as pictures went viral of parties at the county line. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez kept his own beaches closed to the chagrin of conservatives while running a Republican campaign for Congress. Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings overcame partisan squabbles about business restrictions by employing a massive public outreach campaign.
The choices Mayors made drew loud rebukes from the left and right, but decisions were made nonetheless. In the face of challenge, each one stood up to guide their cities. And for that, they get recognized as Florida’s Politicians of the Year.
Disasters are nothing new to Carlos Giménez. Before serving as Mayor of Miami-Dade County, he served as Fire Chief and City Manager for the city of Miami. That gave him an understanding of both medical emergencies and the kind of disasters that can shut a city down. But the challenge presented by the pandemic seemed like no other.
“There’s no guidebook when you have this kind of a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said. “The last time we had any event like this was 100 years ago. So we were writing the book as we went along.”
Ultimately, many of the chapters in that book would be written in Miami.
Florida’s most populous county would become the national epicenter of the public health crisis. The first known case of coronavirus infection in Miami-Dade County surfaced on March 12. That number would skyrocket to 2,123 cases, seven of those fatal, by the end of the month.
This prompted Miami-Dade to issue one of the state’s first significant safer-at-home orders, one that stopped nonessential activities outside grocery shopping and medical emergencies. Gov. DeSantis within a few weeks modeled a statewide order after the Miami-Dade ordinance, and similar regulations regarding beach closures and other restrictions would end up modeled after the South Florida community’s measures.
But that’s not to say the moves were universally celebrated. Giménez fought with business leaders about whether he went too far, public health hard-liners who thought he moved too slow, and other Mayors in 34 different municipalities within the county boundaries who often scoffed as the county leader strode forward. To this day, he hears criticism about whether the county shut down too much or whether it acted too slowly.
His successor in the Miami-Dade Mayor’s Office, Danielle Levine Cava, suggests Giménez got the broad strokes right, but his timing was off. He shut down too late, reopened too early, and the community paid a price.
Giménez waves off the critique.
“We sometimes say ‘Listen to the science, but sometimes the science isn’t well known,” he said.
The Mayor for his part tried to prioritize guidance from the CDC, but that changed as researchers learned more about a novel virus never detected in the world until late 2019. The community would go through the major shifts of the year and experiment with a range of rules from lockdowns to mask mandates and curfews. There’s still a midnight curfew in place in the city, and even after the Governor put a stop to the collection of fines, the city kept issuing notices that may yet be collected upon at a later date.
Notably, Giménez likely faced a greater challenge escaping partisan political pressure than any other Mayor in Florida, as he led the county through a pandemic while also running a campaign for Congress. On that front, he succeeded without question, defeating freshman Democratic incumbent Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. But conservative activists threatened to challenge the Mayor in the primary at a time when he served as the local face of government regulation. He tried not to think about politics while making decisions.
When Giménez’s term ended, there had been more than 207,000 reported cases and more than 3,700 of his constituents died with COVID-19. But he feels the numbers could have been worse.
“The steps we took were to protect the most vulnerable,” he said. “Everything we did was based on those parameters.”
Tampa’s first-term Mayor, the first openly gay woman to hold the office, was instrumental not just in shaping the virus response in her city, but in pushing through preventive policies in the early days of the pandemic that might have otherwise languished.
Like just about any leader in the state, Castor was up against a wall of public criticism from those who saw any sort of state, county or city mandate as overly restrictive and freedom-killing. Still, others were on the far opposite side of the public opinion spectrum, believing that whatever progress was made was either not enough or too little, too late.
Yet Castor emerged almost immediately as an undeterred proponent for public health and safety.
Over the course of 72 hours, a group of elected leaders in Hillsborough County went from expressing serious reservations about implementing a stay-at-home order for residents and visitors to approving almost the exact same plan they had previously rejected.
The shift in mindset wasn’t due to a change in circumstance, even though coronavirus cases over those three days drastically increased.
The problem was largely a partisan now-defunct board, the Hillsborough County Emergency Management Group, which included elected officials from all of the county’s municipalities, three members of the County Commission, the Sheriff and a representative from the School Board.
In March, the group grappled with implementing a stay-at-home order. Before the board’s discussions, Castor speculated that an order was imminent, prompting immediate community conversations both for and against such an order. When Castor floated her plan to the board, six of the eight members — all of its Republicans and one Democrat — balked.
They argued a variety of reasons. Not enough data. Would such a plan even have an impact? How would police officers enforce the order? They contemplated a curfew instead of a stay-at-home order, an idea that later came to pass but was almost immediately repealed after massive public backlash. Castor was against the curfew from the start.
On the heels of her defeat, Castor instead implemented the order citywide where she claimed she had the authority to do so. Hillsborough County’s then-Administrator Mike Merrill issued his own executive order saying Castor’s was invalid.
What sounds like a series of blows to Castor was anything but. Instead of pushing back against Castor, as she held her ground and was largely praised for it, Merrill moved forward with a draft “safer-at-home” order that was almost identical to Castor’s original proposal. The second vote was unanimous. It’s possible that without Castor using her position to stoke community input, the order might not have happened, or would have been put off, a delay that could have cost lives and overwhelmed hospitals.
Since then, Castor has continued to be a staunch advocate for preventing the spread of COVID-19, hosting frequent mask giveaways, directing funds to small businesses in need, launching initiatives to help residents find jobs and establishing programs for out of work residents. Most recently, Castor launched an ad campaign aimed at raising awareness for mask-wearing, complete with grim images presenting a choice: A face mask or a ventilator.
Like Castor, the St. Petersburg Mayor came out early advocating for temporary restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 and avoiding doomsday scenarios in which hospitals were overrun with virus patients.
Kriseman was among the first Mayors in the state in mid-March to order restaurant, bar and gym capacity at 50% and to ban large gatherings of 50 or more. He also moved up last call in St. Pete from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m.
But even before that, Kriseman issued an order prohibiting attendance at the city’s annual Grand Prix. Kriseman’s call was met with mixed feelings, but he was quickly proved right when INDYCAR, the sports organization that oversees the event, canceled the race entirely.
But even as many questioned the wisdom behind many COVID-19 restrictions and mandates, Kriseman showed flexibility in his policies, adapting to ever-changing guidance from the CDC.
“For example, when we learned the outdoors was the best place to be, so long as common sense measures were in place, I felt comfortable moving forward with opening the St. Pete Pier. In fact, I was eager to provide our residents with 26 more acres to spread out,” Kriseman said.
His measures, paired with his close working relationship with county officials that have kept an ongoing mask order in place, have led Pinellas County to have one of the state’s lowest third wave numbers. As of Dec. 18, Pinellas County had recorded 39,846 cases of COVID-19 compared to neighboring Hillsborough County’s 68,739 cases. During the preceding two weeks, Pinellas County also consistently trailed Hillsborough County and the state in its testing positivity rate by at least one percentage point, often two or three.
Like other Mayors, Kriseman also reached into the city coffers early to provide grants to residents and small businesses who had lost income as a result of the pandemic, even before Congress authorized the CARES Act to help cities and counties provide direct allocations.
“In the absence of state leadership, it has fallen to Mayors and other local elected officials to make the difficult decisions, to protect our citizens while keeping our economy and our small businesses afloat to the best of our ability. Our last Governor had an aversion to climate science. This Governor has an aversion to health science and epidemiology, and people have undoubtedly died because of it. We know that a simple statewide mask order would have saved lives,” Kriseman said.
“In St. Pete, we did that, and we continue to enforce it. We brought in additional testing, above and beyond what the state has provided. We also took the unprecedented step of getting funds into the hands of business owners and their employees prior to state or federal assistance becoming available.”
Orange County Mayor Demings entered the pandemic with a unique and advantageous, skill set.
As a former Sheriff and emergency manager, he had already been on the front lines of crisis management, whether by guiding his county through hurricanes or healing from the Pulse nightclub massacre.
The coronavirus crisis is like nothing that has happened in at least a century, leaving him just as in the dark on what to expect or how to manage as anyone else, despite his extensive experience. Yet as a county Mayor, Demings was also acting as Orange County’s CEO, putting him in place to guide the response across municipal borders, an advantage city Mayors lacked.
He wasted no time.
His first step was to employ what he calls the ICER concept — isolate, contain, evaluate and report. Using this method, Demings went about strategizing in a way that simplified what was otherwise an overwhelming emerging virus in the early days of the pandemic, one where there were more questions than answers and information was changing almost daily.
Demings utilized the most recent information available at any given point from the CDC and the World Health Organization to plan. He strategized with municipal Mayors within the county to find consensus, creating one of the most seamless sets of COVID-19 policies in any Florida region.
Each Mayor highlighted in this year’s politician of the year profile accomplished similar goals — mask orders, temporary stay-at-home orders, social distancing guidelines, relief programs for small businesses and residents — but each did so with minor differences unique to their communities. Demings was no different.
One of his proudest accomplishments throughout the pandemic — though he notes victory remains elusive — came by way of the county’s robust mechanisms for financial relief. Like St. Pete, Orange County employed a fiscal relief program before federal dollars became available. His targeted individuals and families.
When the federal CARES Act dollars came in, Demings orchestrated a multitiered process for individuals and families to obtain $1,000 grants. They staggered the enrollment period to reach as many in need as possible, utilizing nearly $250 million in federal money to provide relief. The final round launched on Dec. 8, ahead of the Dec. 30 deadline to utilize all funds, to provide $20,000 to qualifying individuals to help with rent, food, utilities, or anything else COVID-strapped finances couldn’t handle.
He also trained focus on small businesses, noting that grants through the federal Paycheck Protection Program largely went to businesses with 100 or more employees. The county offered $10,000 grants to struggling small businesses as well as personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.
He established an eviction diversion program to keep residents in their homes and apartments, even as eviction moratoriums were rolled back.
When Gov. DeSantis announced Phase 3 of reopening, normalizing much of the state’s business, and ordered local governments not to fine individuals for violating local ordinances, like mask mandates, it wasn’t long before Demings struck out on his own again, implementing strike teams to ensure adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing. Bad actor businesses, as he called them, will be fined for noncompliance.
He did all of this even as Orange County faced some of the most severe economic consequences of the crisis as home to the state’s largest tourism sector, the industry most impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer saw the writing on the wall on March 11 when the National Basketball Association officially suspended its season, the first major sports league to do so.
Shortly after, Disney, Orlando’s largest employer, announced it was closing its parks.
The impending effects were undeniable and Dyer, along with neighboring elected officials, was about to enter the most uncertain times this lifetime.
“I got a lot of advice from our health care professionals,” Dyer said of the early days of the pandemic. “But it seemed like, especially in those early stages, what we knew about the virus changed if not every day, at least weekly.”
Dyer’s strategy was one of collaboration. He was in regular contact with Castor and Kriseman, leaders of similarly sized urban cities grappling with similar challenges his city faced. Those conversations helped him craft Orlando’s springtime stay-at-home order.
He also assumed the role of chief communicator.
“I always think the most important role is a provider of accurate information,” Dyer said. “People want to know what to do, not be told what to do.”
Those messages included not only informing residents about health expert recommendations to wear masks and remain socially distanced, but explaining to them the science behind the advice and why it works.
Because the mask order in Orlando was part of the countywide order from Mayor Demings, Dyer didn’t have to face too much blowback from the anti-mask crowd, but he did believe the science-based information campaign helped quell dissent.
Jacksonville Mayor Curry, as a Republican, enjoyed a close relationship with Gov. DeSantis in the days and weeks that gave into months of the pandemic. But while the two were allies, they weren’t always in lockstep on the virus, and Curry consistently showed his priority was to his residents, not his party.
Curry said he took the virus seriously long before it reached Florida shores, as he watched the pandemic unfold in Italy.
“By the time it got here, leaders were trying to figure out how serious this was,” Curry said. “I already believed it was serious.”
He was haunted by videos of shut-in Italians, singing through windows to assuage the despair of isolation.
Curry was quick to react when the virus did show up in Florida. Shortly after the PGA Tour canceled The Players Championship in Jacksonville, Curry shut down all concert venues in the city, which encompasses all of Duval County. It was about a week before other cities followed suit.
“I think people thought at the time like, what the heck is this guy doing,” Curry said.
Like Demings, Curry reached out to other Mayors as the virus raged on to seek out best practices. Some speculate, though there is no proof, that Curry’s stay-at-home order, issued April 1 just hours before DeSantis caved to pressure to issue his own, prompted the Governor to finally act.
Curry’s relationship with the Governor was on full display, with news conferences often centered in Jacksonville and the city getting one of the few National Guard-run testing sites in the state. The area’s testing apparatus, aside from South Florida, was for a time the envy of the state.
But Curry navigated another issue at the height of the pandemic. As cases were surging during the summer spike, Curry was grappling with conversations surrounding a relocated Republican National Convention. The RNC, originally slated for North Carolina, was looking to move somewhere President Donald Trump could enjoy the massive celebration he always envisioned, a party North Carolina couldn’t promise.
But while Curry welcomed the August event for its economic impact potential in a city struggling under the weight of widespread economic collapse, he likewise never promised a full-scale, in-person event. He considered outdoor options, where the virus was less likely to spread. He wouldn’t rule out limiting capacity.
For pundits, Curry was seen as going against the nation’s top Republican. To him it wasn’t about Trump, it was about adhering to public health recommendations and keeping people safe.
Curry was also early to encourage mask-wearing, even as some in his own party rejected or questioned their effectiveness. He tapped his 12-year-old daughter to help with messaging, especially to young residents questioning why they were suddenly asked to wear masks. She made a short video highlighting proper mask-wearing, a move that both endeared the Mayor to his constituents and inspired more aberrance to public health advice.
As South Florida’s leaders fought against an invisible enemy, it often seemed easier to target one another. Miami Mayor Suarez, in describing the greatest challenges of the pandemic, mentions working with too many arbitrary federal regulations, too little support from the state and, from the sounds of it, too much interaction with Giménez.
The feeling appears mutual. Giménez in describing relations with local government said most worked well with the county but a few egos got in the way. “They know who they are,” he said while declining to name names.
It sounds like Suarez indeed considers him one of those “egos,” but only because he fought for the resources his community needed. The CARES Act passed by Congress set arbitrary rules on which cities were directly awarded grant money from the federal government, and Miami fell just short. That meant the county ended up with the money and took months distributing it to the cities.
“He’s only accusing me of grandstanding to cover his own incompetence,” Suarez said.
But municipal food fights aside, Suarez recalls the pandemic presenting an enormous challenge to all levels of government. It required resources to be pumped into fire and police response, workers who faced direct exposure and suffered infections from the front lines. Suarez in fact was among the first elected officials in Florida to be infected by the coronavirus; both Giménez and current Miami-Dade Mayor Cava have survived the virus by this point as well.
Suarez knows as well as anybody that this crisis didn’t just threaten lives but livelihood. Miami, a world-class tourism destination, relies on a healthy travel economy. This year, the cruise industry landlocked, restaurants suffered revenue-destroying capacity restrictions and hotels saw the number of visitors plunge. The crisis for business from the pandemic proved as great a challenge for the government as did the public health dilemma.
“And unfortunately, they are inversely correlated,” he said. “You talk to epidemiologists and they will tell you to close everything. That’s the safest way to stop the virus, and that’s true. But any economist or business owner will tell you if you close everything you can’t provide for the people.”
Suarez listened to medical science as often as he could, but also had to fight to find a way forward for business, carefully finding ways for restaurants and retailers to do business.
Daniella Levine Cava
Miami-Dade County’s first female Mayor, Cava, takes the reins as the community battles one of the greatest challenges in its history. More than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 continue to be recorded in the county on average each day, and Miami-Dade is on track to reach its 4,000th coronavirus-related death before the end of the year. But Florida’s newest metropolitan Mayor feels optimistic.
“We are definitely still on recovery, but we are almost out of the woods,” she said.
Within weeks of taking office, Cava unveiled a public-relations campaign in the city focused on positive messaging, encouraging residents to boast on social media and other channels with the hashtag #WeCanWeWill about what they have done to limit the spread of the disease. Her hope is encouraging ownership of the response will improve both containment of the virus and public attitudes about their own responsibilities.
But Cava feels at least she’s arriving in office after the path to recovery has been well-tread.
“It isn’t that there is any mystery,” she said. “It’s important we have a united front. We can’t relent on mask-wearing, disinfecting, social distancing. Testing must be readily available, and we want contact tracing. Isolation is critical if you have been exposed or are sick.”
Any capacity challenges that faced Miami-Dade’s health institutions have been addressed. Notably, even at the peak of the pandemic, none of the hospitals in the area were overwhelmed, and within the first vaccines reaching the public, the situation should begin to calm.
She does hope to improve on Giménez’s performance in one key area. Cava believes friction between cities and county leadership should have been avoided for Miami-Dade’s greater good.
“I’m really counting on a greater level of cooperation,” she said.
That will be critical as vaccines get dispersed in the metro area, first to essential workers and ultimately to the broader public.
On the political side, Cava holds nonpartisan office but was considered one of the Democratic Party’s important wins in South Florida this year in what was an otherwise rough cycle. Maybe that will help get along better with other regional powers. But then there’s also the Governor. There, she encourages DeSantis to allow communities to exercise home rule and guide communities as needed.
That seemed to be the Governor’s approach early but he has since put a stop to some actions like enforcement of mask ordinances.
“We do prefer to have local control over how we implement our policies,” she said. “We have done well with the rules we have had.”