Tag Archives: COVID vaccination

The Dystopia of Diagolon: Irrational Cartographies of Secession

The quandary of our own abundant if not inexhaustible repertoire of mapping abilities and skills of visualization are tried by the spread of COVID-19. As dashboards, news agencies, and media offered new maps and staked new skills of mapping, maps of the pandemic’s spread–from the panicked first maps of ‘cases’ to the maps of mortality, hospitalization, or comorbidity that ensued as we tried to process the pandemic, rightly fed concerns about the viral spread we risked unable to control, and rightly so.

But it was hard to predict how quickly these maps–not predictive, but mostly tracking maps–gave way to a skepticism to accept the government policies to contain the virus whose devastating effects we long feared we were unable to control. Opposition to public health policies of vaccination, masking, and limiting exposure to public places became cast as a power grab, an invasion of liberties and freedoms that are increasingly tied to the individual body, rather than a collective one. The inescapable introduction of politics to policies of masking created a dangerous undermining of the social contract, to be sure, as decisions and declarations of masks as sufficient protection–even if cloth!–or as impositions played out as decisions about civil society in deeply distorting ways. And the notion of a nation with mask-free rules, if not the secession of the unmasked, proved to rehabilitate a scary undercurrent granting validity to secessionism in the aftermath of January 6, 2021. But the protest that led drivers to turn the Transcanada Highway into a protest route obstructing travel to the commercial US was an odd reflexive assertion of “independence” in an era when COVID affirms our global interconnections.

It may be the product of an era which has both feet firmly planted in an era of non-representational mapping, apparent both from disease maps, epidemiological maps, maps of viral lineages, and indeed from weather maps to maps of forest fires, combustability, and drought, that the non-representational nature of these maps led to a reflexive search for a new map of political embodiment of the resistance to vaccination and public health policies. It is partly exhaustion with the pandemic-inspired health measures or restrictions–from mask-wearing to congregating indoors–that has lead many to refuse social distancing, but to deep skepticism of mandated COVID vaccinations as government overreach. But it was also in the increasingly smooth surface of the globalized world that neoliberals long promoted, where capital’s free transit across borders benefitted all, that redrawing a cross-border map of “Diagalon” as a New Green World grew in the guise of a revolt from below.

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Was this a “republic,” in any way, or just a cry for help? Framed in terms of a direct democracy taking charge of the pandemic, the urgency of Diagalon seemed to concretize a broad salon des refusés, outside of and beyond politics as usual. The resistance was incarnated in a light green overlay designed to define a region without any common political or representative bodies by its collective refusal of a vaccine mandate, and refusal to accept either American or Canadian government oversight, a utopic collection of provinces and seceding states defending of liberties, in defiance of public health codes. The emergence of pseudo-republic of #Diagalon or #Diagolon as a suddenly trending as a meme on social media, an “accelerationist” extremist group, bent on destabilizing the state by overturning an order they sought to discredit as illegitimate.

The guileless simplicity self-made “map” of overlays was fictional, but an immediate redesign of sovereignty fro emotional ends. It was less a proposal than a polemic about the conventionality of all nations, supporting a free-trade North America able to be capacious of the Keystone XL Pipeline that the American government had put on hold, presenting secession as a resolution to the burning questions of economics and freedoms of conscience that cast the actual state as due for discrediting. Filled with a healthy dollop of Manichaeism, the assertion of an alternate republic–something akin to a breakaway republic in North America–benefitted from the unfair interlacing of public health policies with politics to secede from a status quo with an energy that was very gung ho, as it assumed the status of a combat flag for angrily rallying against the status quo. The map is the result or residue of the odd discursive realignment of ideology and pandemic preparedness in the United States. The self-styled “Freedom Convoys” animated a new sense of liberties “on the road,” taking liberties to stream across the highways and even urban roads, freely honking horns and sounding air horns, soliciting resistance to government oversight on health mandates, urgently representing themselves as a solution to the pandemic’s panic.

As if in response to the images of an unruly “Caravan” that approached the United States to destabilize security, the motorcades sought to convey the strength of secessionists on wheels. With some odd dissonance, the light green shade of the overlay suggested not a project of “greening” but a freeing of wealth against an allegedly hegemonic state. There was a deep sense of a need for collective embodiment and a restoration of a lost era of liberties that the map stimulated and seemed to incarnate, as an emblem of a fragmenting of public health policies in the guise of a populist revolt. But this was hardly a populist movement, if it sought the trappings of one. The rag-tag collection of extremist groups and secessionists began as a meme that sought to unite opposition to the government around resistance to the vaccine mandate, but cast themselves in stark oppositional terms of Manichaean origins, rehashed for an age of globalization against the heresy of government oversight.

For rather than really debating or even discussing the policies for confronting COVID-19, the protestors seem to have responded to the fetishization of masking as a sign of containing the pandemic–and indeed the unfortunate politicization of health regulation, that has filled in for serious debate about managing the virus. The unprecedented politicization of health regulation from the early days of the pandemic gained only greater steam with vaccination and a mandate for vaccinating or mask-wearing. If the serious reservations some felt about The embrace of strident opposition to either policy as a way to voice increased skepticism about government guidelines fostered an unexpected false populist outcry against both, confusing the pandemic with politics and intertwining ideology and public health policy in deeply unhelpful ways. The “Freedom Convoy” that seemed organic in how they appeared as if spontaneously on paved arteries to protest government overreach arrived in neighborhoods across the nation as carnivalesque uprisings.

But a somber seriousness was on the verge of comedy. The distinction was existential as much as of citizenship, defining themselves in a new lingo as Diagolonians, Diags or just Dags, who, in some reflection of their anti-globalist credo, opposing themselves to “Circulonians” –the lapdogs of globalism in the rest of North America. Vaccination mandates became a placeholder for communism, or other globalist agents, the new nativist map affected a Utopian identity in an overlay of green, using as their flag a banner of a harsh black and white diagonal stripe, a defense of liberties of deep transhistorical origins, with a dissident national anthem, roots in white supremacy revealed in their embrace of the old American confederacy, defined by a “diagonal unity” of Canadian provinces that linked Alaska to Florida, a new promised land of traditional Republican values bound by the motto, “Nations come and go, but Diagolon never dies“–an eternal longing for direct democracy of the vox populi.

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The imperative of this new “territory” was not with its own DMZ, but suggested the fervent belief in a militarized imaginary rejecting COVID-19 vaccines on both sides of the border. The disturbing emergence of this imaginary territory was a purely virtual entity, but was disturbing all the more for the intensity of convictions released by the crude contrivance of a GIS overlay. A counter-map of sorts to a detailed data map or a helpful visualization of reported rates of infection or of vaccination rates, the polemic nature of the map lay in its bluntly drawn straight edges, themselves a rebuttal of the detailed map of viral infection and mortality rates that had dominated the news for the past two years. Any association of planimetric projection with rationality is challenged by the lack of logos in using a simple cartographic overlay promotes “Diagolon” as a call to arms and secession. The Trans-Canada Highway is really only the ‘only’ place that links the east and west of the country in some places, and the power of rewriting the map won the day as a trending proclamation of sovereignty.

The sharply defined contours of the green overlay suggests an uncompromising rigidity and militancy akin to ethno-nationalism: either you are for or against us. Facing a pervasive sense of disempowerment that resulted from the pandemic has opened the doors to the appeal of a clean-cut map of clear edges and belonging–an image of belonging that is at odds with the reality of a global pandemic. While drawing authority from open data of USGS as if to lend authority to this new fantasia of seceded land, a diagonal swatch across the continent whose imagined coherence seems far cruder than the idealized Masonic fetishization of geometric forms: a simple diagonal line, drawn from the Arctic Ocean or Beaufort Sea over Alberta runs down from the prairies into Idaho and Montana, drops to encompass an expanded Confederacy from Texas to Florida. After two years of the pandemic, and a deep sense of isolation, the call to end pandemic mandates not only energetically affirmed a collective commitment but an exuberant demonstration of joy.

In contrast to the disempowering maps tracking COVID’s spread, the single polygon of linked states and provinces rising in resistance to COVID health policies mandating vaccination seemed to incarnate the rise of a new form of politics and political expression of firm resistance to mandates. And the new polygon that was imposed on North America in this odd meme bragged of a rights to secede from national COVID vaccination mandates that suggested a polemic of sorts of an unprecedented level of entitlement of unprecedented nature, effectively appropriating national mapping agencies’ geodata to create a new imaginary state, or if not a state at least a space removed from government-sponsored health mandates and a state of mind.

TheVoiceofReason-AKA Untermensch 2nd class Nigga on Twitter: "@LideFranks  @colin_korol @PollardLaw Yeah it's called #Diagalon  https://t.co/lXJKjf6RiI" / Twitter
“Republic of Diagalon” Meme

To be sure, the polygon was not only an overlay, but evoked its own sense of spatial logic that was abundantly familiar above the 49th parallel that often separates the United States and Canada: bridging the border, the green overlay of “Diagalon” was a populist cartography, the GIS derived emblem of an extremist right-wing group of separatists. Drawing some reflexive accolades on Twitter, the apparent “peaceable kingdom” of green was a neofascist emblem of resistance to public health mandates, complete with its own “De-Militarized Zone” (DMZ) in the only hint of its militancy. To be sure, but also a faux populist cartography, rich with its own cartographic connotations as much as serving as a slap in the face for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose imposition of a mandated vaccine for cross-border travel it opposed. A new logic of secessionism, the northwestern provinces of Canada would bring their wealth of petroleum deposits, by this logic, to link themselves to “brethren” of the old Confederate South, now expanded to Idaho, Colorado, and Texas, but what may not seem much of a stretch of the imagination, to resist the latest demonization of “big government” disguising itself as pandemic response. Never mind that this is a global pandemic; the liberating logic of the “Diagalon” meme promised freedom from government oversight from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico.

The map was an unlikely icon of an attack on a strategic federal role for defining national health policies and health readiness seemed implicitly important as vaccination rates needed to be encouraged and preparedness for variants of the virus whose spread in new lineages threatened to grow, as the virus mutated in ways more rapid than influenza, and had spread worldwide. Even in a country of universal health insurance coverage, it suggests more than a dangerous distraction as funds dry out worldwide for “emergency” funding for testing, vaccination, and indeed COVID care. Mapping a non-nation affirmed like-minded resistance to COVID vaccination across borders, but also expanded the staging of a massive blockade of cross-border traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway; the revolt against the mandate of vaccination for all truckers carrying goods across the border. It sought to contrast the “reality” of those living by ferrying goods across the border who would be hampered by the government over-reach of a vaccine mandate; the open space of the highway was contrasted to alleged over-reach of a government seeking to oversee public health, transforming the Trans-Canada Highway and associated arteries of trade to a protest zone of global scale.

Trans-Canada Highway | Map & Construction | Britannica
Trans-Canada Highway

The truckers’ obstruction of the major routes for commercial vehicle traffic across the Ambassador Bridge leading to Detroit, the largest volume commercial crossing of 8,000 trucks daily, which was blockaded even after a court order urged them to disband and leave, was effectively a gun to the head of the government, fenders draped in the Maple Leaf banner, as if to recuperate the nation, shutting down the greatest single point of trade in the name of lifting COVID restrictions, casting COVID restrictions as a “fight” between truckers and government, where “truckers” flouted the criminal offense of blocking commercial traffic on the bridge, demanding “freedom” to cross the border without being vaccinated. The disruption of traffic between auto plants on both sides of the border ended upwards of a quarter of trade between Canada and the US, in a disruption seeking to trigger broader protests as it took aim at workers’ shifts, production lines, and paychecks, in an odd inversion of the image of a National Strike, winning support from FOX TV, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz, as if to incite a revolution from below to oppose the “mandate” for vaccination for cross-border traffic.

Protesters at the bridge on Friday
Reuters

The crude icon of populist cartography was odd, indeed, coming in a nation distinguished by considerably greater cartographic literacy than the United States–geography is more universally taught in Canadian schools. But the polygon of Diagalon was a briskly drawn fantasy of a land free from health mandates. The connotation of the map of a region of resistance to government oversight blurred existing borders by championing of free market trade, free from government oversight or health mandates, recalled a recent great free market dreams of the century. For the republic of Diagalon recouped a diagonal cross-border petroleum pipelines only placed on hold recently, but still dear to those who had long imagined a unified North American petrostate.

The closely aligned and deeply interested memory of cross-border transit on which considerable local capital was staked was a free trade icon, not always mapped in positive terms by opponents–but similarly naturalized as a horizontal line bisecting the border, running from Tar Sands Development to the Gulf of Mexico, and providing an axis of wealth, economic promises, and autarky that seemed to lie at the basis for the fantasy of an independent Diagolon: the shipping of gas worldwide was indeed a negative vision of globalization, enriching the companies of Alberta and the northwest, that had, indeed, been resisted by what many argued was executive over-reach of the deepest sort, constraining what was imagined as a life-line of cross-border trade and the exploitation of claims to mineral wealth that provided mercantilist riches to boost the Canadian economy located in the Tar Sands that many argue are the right of Calgary-based integrated energy companies to exploit and extract.

Planned Petroleum Pipeline of the Keystone XL from Alberta to Gulf Coast

The. vision of the “free market” is, of course, not only the engine of a Canadian economic boom on a global scale of mineral extraction, promoted as a “right” of Canadian companies to dominate the global marketplace for fossil fuels. It is, as well, a tacit and unspoken response to the rights of indigenous inhabitants of the same lands, whose title is effectively denied by the mercantilist logic of a fossil fuel market dominated by a handful of highly concentrated actors, generating revenues for some twenty-five owners–some based in America–from Exxon Mobil, BlackRock, the Royal Bank of Canada, T-D Bank, Royal Dutch Shell, FMR–a constellation of energy firms, investment Funds, Limited Liability Companies, and private trusts, as the Desmarais Family Trust.

Is it a coincidence that many of these stakeholders lie located in the green area of Diagalon, ready to furnish coffers for ongoing protests to assert their claims to import oil to a global marketplace for fossil feuls? The largest single stake-holder in the Tar Sands of ExxonMobil–some 6.57% from 2010-15–is not only foreign corporate, but the largest share of fossil-fuel revenues are foreign-owned. If anything, the claims for ownership are however staked against a sense of indigenous ownership, and has fanned the flames of cross-border white supremacist separatists whose attack on federal policies mirrors federal interests in adjudicating and recognizing indigenous “native” land claims–the prospect of mapping which this blogger has discussed in a previous post, claims that were first mapped online on a new platform, unsurprisingly, parallel to the staking of energy claims and extractive rights to articulate specific claims to ancestral lands. Indeed, the obliteration of ancestral land claims to usufruct or mineral wealth motivates the opening up of borders for an energy market far beyond North America, and hoping to reach a global marketplace: the most wealthy protagonists in economics of globalization of energy markets not only stand to profit but may be standing behind the false populism of Diagalon’s militant “separatist” claims.

The land claims that Native Lands has rendered in pastels as a vibrant palimpsest suggesting the scope of compromised territories that were made to fit into the provincial system surveyed in the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries were cleverly erased, of course, by the new collective, which concealed the density of mineral deposits located in the protected boreal forest in lands “ceded” by historical treaties of the past. What was not rendered opaque, the overlay affirmed an egenda to “go it alone” by evoking an energy independence rooted in the seizure of indigenous land claims but blinded to its own history, cartographically smoothing local land claims to reify avenues of trans-border shipment of extracted mineral wealth.

Claims Stked to Mineral and Petroleum Deposits n North America against Modern and Historical Treaties

The rather ingenious cartographic sleight of hand able to recoup plans for a now-cancelled Keystone XL or Transcanada pipeline by encouraging a new “nativist” claim to the autonomy of the very region in which most underground mineral deposits are located, boosting a “nativist” declaration of rights to export energy in Diagalonian lands by unvaccinated truckers.

Did not the vision of the highway, or of the pipeline, condense the economic benefits imposition of government mandates would prevent? While Diagalon as a geographic conceit of Diagalon is perhaps best seen in rhetorical terms as an anti-federal fillip, the territory’s coherence, if it exists, seems to stem from the deep desire of Alberta and Calgary to rethink the border that the tar sands oil might be able to cross. The assertion of a commonality to which the federal government was blind asserted a deep gulf of distance between the liberal state and the people, as if health mandates only undermined the “true” interests of Canadians in the very manner that the shutting down of the Keystone pipeline that was planned to move petroleum deposits from the tar sands globally was shut down.

If one could push oneself to imagine economic integrity for the imaginary land, that arrives on social media rather complete with its own miniature Border Wall, running north of Vancouver, a precedent for such territorial unity would be longstanding antagonism to foiling the Keystone XL pipeline. The ostensibly populist movement of which Diagalon was both motivational meme and emblem was based in Calgary and Alberta if excluding metropolitan BC, was a mirror areas that the petroleum industry is strongest as a political lobby has championed free trade agreements, and as the largest provincial producer of oil, recently had uncoincidentally filed a trade challenge to recover the C$1.3 billion it had invested in the Keystone pipeline. The provincial amalgam the overlay embraced and unified as a block of alleged resistance to “government over-reach” was inhabited bythe ghost of the planned XL pipeline diagonally reaching into the United States.

Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline/Transcanada Pipeline

The secessionist imaginary of Diagolon–often “Diagalon” on Twitter, but never “Diagonolia,” despite its poetic capaciousness–by which the Truckers’ Convoy became known staked a provincial collective whose inhabitants reached down to embrace the “red” state imaginary–skirting Michigan and northern states east of the Mississippi, incorporating the old Confederacy in white supremacist largesse–by affirming the logic of the free market and cross-border trade to the very states on the Gulf of Mexico where the tar sands pumped from Alberta would arrive. The coincidence of that overlay was not much noticed, perhaps as the political imaginary was so obvious: or because the overlay was aptly opaque. It was a masked the validity of native land claims, and suggested a reification of the claims of an energy industry to deny the validity of any historical claims of precedence or the past. One might imagine the shock of COVID-19 put debate on hold for title to send bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands and Saskatchewan straight through to the Gulf of Mexico, asserting claims to extracting oil for the deferred pipeline in the face of the government, as if demanding the restoration of oil flow to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The blind geography of Diagalon was not only a mask, but a reification, if not a “reified consciousness” making concrete claims to energy, flattening the past, exploiting the opacity of an overlay as a historical banner to rally against the state.

Yet, as this blogpost will suggest, it may well explain how readiness for large contributions to vaccine protests that flowed north via crowdfunding, or funneled north on GoFundMe, promoted to large online followings, by alt right figures from Glenn Beck to Mike Huckabee to Erik Trump to the tele-evangelist Franklin Graham? As much as sticking a finger in Joe Biden’s eye by nourishing antivaxx sentiment and dissensus, the ghost of the pipeline may lie behind Americans who declined boosters but boosted disruptive protests, “standing for FREEDOM” despite increasing convictions of those who provoked, participated in or actively encouraged the events of January 6. Indeed, the prayers that were said for the convoys that moved across America and from the overpasses of highways treated the consciousness as a representation of local interests, obscured in the bloated big government that had created a policy of vaccine mandates, turning funds over to testing, vaccination, and masking and entrusting authority to health policies that threatened to undermine economics as usual.

There was more at stake than a consolation prize here. The uniformity of the polygon, so unlike the point-based maps that have been used to track COVID-19 mortality and infections, was a map of small government. Unlike the big data of multispectral global or national maps that have haunted the spatial global imaginary for several years, it was a logic that seemed cut and dry. Rather than asking viewers to try to parse every thing from hot-spots, health vulnerability, hospital beds, and health care services in day glow colors, or peer into the x-rays of deep divisions in the nation’s health care system and health care readiness, the green continuous block that incarnates “Diagalon” on the North American continent is akin to dumbed-down geodata, of an almost fascist sort. Its clean geometric overlay charts and embodies an allegedly more organic resistance to technogovernance, in an illustration of the growing distance and lack of proximity of government to nation in the age of COVID-19.

And coming as it does almost at the very same time as we ready for a new COVID surges, it seems to start to disarm the state of all preparation for pandemic readiness. For the protests ostensibly animated by truckers on the Transcanada Highway disrupted public health policy, in a moment that was seeking to go global in its resistance to government mandates or public health policy governments in the US and Canada were seeking more funds and structural policies to enact. If not the Omicron variant or BA.2, which did not affect infections as in Hong Kong in all the countries it emerged, we are not only less prepared for the danger of a new surge in hospital admissions, but are left to wonder how weakened immunity after vaccination could affect the virulence of a future wave, as the advantage of immune defenses simply wanes. Even as former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden doesn’t doubt that the next COVID wave may be on its way, even if our levels of vaccination protect us against a rise in mortality rates so that so terribly escalated with little ability to contain its spread. With the virus multiplying in variants with considerable rapidity, the sanctioning of new vaccines was not simple or foolproof.

The More Contagious Omicron Subvariant BA.2 Now Dominant in the US: CDC
CDC Map of Lineages of Contagious Viral Omicron Sub-Variants, March 2022

The reliance of funds for free rapid testing, vaccinations and COVID care are contingent on the emergency status of the pandemic, dependence on emergency status of health care funding imperils its continuity or clear guidelines for pandemic readiness. Fears of underfunding primary health care and public health that the pandemic exposed was countered by the emergency prioritizing of critical health defenses even as fears of a surge rise–and threaten to undermine emergency preparedness, some experts fear, largely as federal funding is increasingly debated in Washington, and the funds for testing, vaccination and treating the uninsured may be in danger of drying up. The very stadiums once sites of vaccination are readying to resume their normal functions as they reopen for entertainment and sporting events as states are scaling back and winding down programs for free testing and vaccination, even as new variants are emerging.

Displaying CDC COVID Data Tracker Variant Proportions.png
CDC Data Tracker of Proportional Presence of Viral Variants

If sparked by the mandate for COVID vaccination of those driving cross-border shipments, the protests were a welling up of anti-government resentment over multiple years. Despite relative public health success of containing the virus in Canada, north of the border, the public health policies took a clear toll. While the vaccine was mandated by the US for cross-border travel as well, the resentment against the principle of a government-issued mandate drove some truckers to disrupt cross-border transit for all, by occupying the Ambassador Bridge against which a large share of commercial vehicles travel, constituting a quarter of goods, at a time when global supply chains are already threatened or slowed.

The false freedom of free trade was elevated by the Freedom Convoy as they congregated in the capitol of Ottawa challenged what it claimed was an unwanted government-sponsored health mandate, disrupting one stable link in the international supply chain as if this was the consequence of the imposition of a mandate presented as government public health policy. The closure of the border to commercial traffic interrupted a major trade artery, recalling how the same government had needlessly failed to prioritize free trade in issuing obstructions to the Keystone pipeline, and in introducing obstructions that led Ford, General Motors, and Toyota to slow lines of production, in hopes to forge a link between the vaccination mandate and an end of free trade.

Line of tractor-trailer trucks on freeway in Detroit
Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press

The memes of the secession of sectors of the United States and Canada from public health mandates will make the prioritization of health defenses all the more difficult. And in a sea of virus, the disruptive declaration of resistance to the vaccination, as if health care were an assault on freedom, creates a false opposition between seeing freedom as a government hands-off in its relations to the public as can be and public health. The lateral organization of the Convoy’s cells gave the appearance of an organic uprising, without clear leaders, but an expression of popular will; organizers were not clearly identified by name, but populist flags of sovereignty, as on January 6, held high–as well as, at times, the Diagalon flag.

Hundreds of truck drivers and their supporters block the streets of downtown Ottawa in February 2022 as part of a convoy of protesters against COVID-19 restrictions in Canada.
Truckers Convoy Parked in Downtown Ottawa to Protest COVID-19 Restrictions/Spencer Platt

So entangled has have public health funding public health directives with attacks on government overreach that the infrastructure to respond to COVID-19 risks being endangered–even as the government may have also worried about the unnecessary disruption of US-Canada trade ties.

And while the frustration at masking or vaccination may be considerable as we approach Spring, the precedents, if marginal, of seceding from public health policies or indeed by rejecting the mandates that tried to increased vaccination and the health emergency that has secured funds for health care threaten a coherent response. Before expanding to British Columbia, Diagalon constellation was a sandwiching of Canada’s northwest provinces between the right-wing affinity groups of neofascist inclination from Alaska to Texas, if rooted in the dreams from a NAFTA-sized Confederacy, that seemed dedicated to resisting any coherent national health policy. But it amassed an anti-federalist resentment of extremism, with the distinct aura of January 6–and the latest of stress-tests, albeit of a bizarre and caricatured nature, that liberal democracy and government faces after the events of 1/6/21.

Landon Dobrohoczki on Twitter: "Republic of Diagolon \  https://t.co/4kAXlKzHL8" / Twitter

Canadian truckers became a link in a global anti-government protest in what seemed the waning days of COVID-19 pandemic. If globalization links the local to the world, the small concentrations of groups of truckers who drove down the TransCanada Highway–their number far below the 227,000 truckers operating in Canada, where trucking is an even more common occupation of Canadian men–was rather strikingly able to globalize from a protest at the mandated vaccine for crossing the US-Canada border to assorted grievances able to garner global media attention. (If roughly a third of Canadian truckers are recent immigrants, immigrant origins were conspicuously absent from the protest; those present hewed to the stereotype set by Truckers for Trump, perhaps sharing the conceit a mogul represented the interests of the working class–an ever growing share of America’s trucking industry also relies on immigrant labor.)

As if in polemic response to the difficulty of processing our deluge of data visualizations of coronavirus infections, the simple slash of the self-made map affirmed an area of resistance to the vaccination mandates imposed by liberal governments in North America: a bottom-up refusal to accept the infringements the state imposed, allegedly for public benefit, the flag advanced a refusal to admit federal policies and science. We had heard about “fake facts” as a casualty of toxic political discourse. But the current migration of “fake news” and “fake facts” to levels of contagion questions the very techno-politics of healthcare rooted in vaccination and pandemic techno-governance, by conjuring the common sense false populism of the figure of a “trucker” in the crystal clear volleys of air horns that both contest and protest current health mandates–and even contest the technopolitics of health care as a masking of free expression and individual liberties.

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Florida Tweets

Can we believe anything from the office of Governor Ron DeSantis? It was the height of irresponsibility, but one that should make Jack Dorsey breathe a sigh of relief that at last he is no longer responsible for Twitter: the Florida Secretary of State used bad data about the rates of COVID infection around the nation to trumpet the peninsula as a vacation land as a safe space in the pandemic, using an utter absence of ethics to promote disinformation about viral spread in the peninsula that almost echoed the denialism Governor DeSantis long promoted in bashing vaccines, masking, or market constraints as a way of combatting viral spread, even if his assertion ran against established ideas of contagious disease and viral transmission. Florida is facing numerous existential threats, from sea-level rise to saltwater flooding of coastal areas, but promotion of the state as a site of safety from the global pandemic was the height of duplicity.

Exercising the prerogative DeSantis long claimed to guard the health practices of Florida, apart from the nation, his office and press secretary must have been thrilled at the latest pre-Thanksgiving COVID data vis that the issued by the CDC, that showed Florida as lying apart form the nation in a bucolic preserve of blue of low coronavirus transmission rates. The announcement by Florida’s Dept. of Public Health on June 8, 2020 of the first twelve deaths due to COVID-19 in the state of Florida 0, when just over 63,000 were testing positive in the state, led the DoH to promise to “provide more comprehensive data,” releasing daily reports on COVID-19 cases in Florida on the DOH COVID-19 dashboard is also providing updates once per day for every Florida county, “available here,” of new positive cases, that state residents and the nation watched rise. If folks had become habituated to dashboards as a way of accessing up-to-date data on viral transmission and public health, the tweeting out of a map that integrated outdated data on infections in Florida with shifting national picture as even as the arrival in the United States of an Omicron variant put a chill on national travel over the Thanksgiving weekend, but year-end travel was predicted to see a rise in air-travel that would approach pre-pandemic days.

The Age of COVID has encouraged an amplification of graphic story-telling about the hot spots and safe spots of viral transmission or local virulence. And the infographic appearing to label Florida, the nation’s storied vacationland, as featuring far lower community transmission seemed ripe for a retweet. Caroline Pushaw, Florida Governor’s social media savvy press secretary, seems to have issued it as an invitation to the state’s winter beaches, as if Florida policies had, despite anti-vaccination campaigns and few masking mandates, gone beyond other states in reversing the high rates of COVID-19 mortality that once afflicted the state per public dashboards of years past.

COVID-19 RIsk Rate/Harvard Global Public Health/Talus Analytics
July 2020

Gov. DeSantis was a huge denier of the infectious nature of the virus, even resisting Trump’s own calls for Americans to stay at home when possible to contain virtual spread, arguing that imposing any “lockdown” and “shutting down the country” was an excessive response. DeSantis’ prominent place in Trump’s inner circle of response to the pandemic increased his profile in the COVID response, and inflated his own sense of national responsibility, as well as causing his pro-business policies to shift in March 2020 by closing Florida schools in the end.

The national map of community transmission rates attempted to bolster Gov. DeSantis’ national credibility. The arrival of the Omicron variant, boasting over three times as many mutations as the delta variant, became an opportunity to boost perceptions of Gov. DeSantis’ public health creds. Despite the Governor’s vaccine denialism and diminishment of public health risks–and utter lack of interest in vaccine equity–low rates of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity to promote the governor on the national news, from FOX to OANN, as if to suggest that “as winter approaches,” Florida was doing something right–as if in an invitation to the nation to make travel plans to consider visiting the sunshine state.

It must have been clear quite immediately to DeSantis’ press secretary, who tweeted it to her 22,000 Twitter followers as evidence of an ethically dubious ethical invitation to the Sunshine State for future travelers–per what seemed currently reported transmission levels. Strikingly, low levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, although not the bulk of the nation, colored red for high levels of transmission that merited masking in the all counties colored red for high levels for which the CDC recommended masking in public to contain potentially very dangerous COVID-19 transmission in the form of new variants.

But the map “lacked” a legend and was in many ways cherry-picked–or based on cherry-picked data, as the statistics for infections in Florida were decisively from an earlier date than the rest of the country, artificially rendering its community transmission rates low. It seemed as if the apparently real-time picture was evidence of a stark change of events that talking heads debated as if it were proof and evidence of DeSantis’ underestimated smarts in pushing back against national health policy. Yet the story is far more complicated–and far more Machiavellian–as the pristine blue image of the state–a blue aquamarine that handily recalled those beaches and sun’n’fun for which Florida was long celebrated in the national imaginary-was based on counts from a different time than the dates of cases in all other states, conveying the appearance of salubrity when that was not the case.

Did the state’s office really fudge the public data on its case rates, which it had long ceased releasing daily, using outdated numbers to showcase an apparent contrast sharply evident on state lines? The meaningful legend that might be juxtaposed with the “snapshot” that the delayed reporting of statistics of coronavirus transmission in Florida shaped might be the way that the state had in fact earlier been rocked by successive waves of coronavirus infections, a roller coaster of infections of which the state Governor, who had only recently unveiled a new image for the separate task force of the state that showcased its unique health policies, seemed oblivious, but whose bursts of new cases of infection seemed the bête noir against which DeSantis was forced to tilt in the public eye.

For in taking the emblem of an alligator fiercely guarding its territory, must have loved the data visualization that “mapped”–if deceptively–the improbable case his unique health policies not only separated Florida from national guidelines, as a paradise free from mask-wearing and vaccine mandates. It was a perfect case of how maps lie, which removed him–or his press secretary–from any liabilities, as the map gained a robust afterlife on social media, free from the constraints of real public health data or true comparison of COVID case counts.

DON'T TREAD ON FLORIDA': Ron DeSantis Promotes 'Pro-Freedom' Flag | Sean  Hannity
October 21, 2021 by @GovRonDeSantis

Modeled after the Gadsden flag, the image radiated a stubborn sense of obstinacy as the omicron variant lead to renewed fears of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, worry that found an odd counterpoint in the map the press secretary took comfort in tweeting out. Yet by Christmas, the gift of the CDC data vis seemed not the gift that keeps on giving at all, as Omicron infections had hit the Sunshine state, proving that its barriers were hardly fixed frontiers.

Although most all Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break. As the omicron variant leading to rising fear of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, DeSantis’s press secretary took comfort in an opportune recently issued CDC map to suggest that, low and behold, things had changed, and current COVID visualizations showed “low transmission rates distinguished the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something right all along.

The crisp borders of low community transmission that seemed to define Florida seemed to be a tip-off, even if the image that was tweeted out was picked up on FOX-TV and other “sources” of right wing or alt right news. The image of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, as a sign of local resilience before fears of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags.

The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis ventriloquized for the state, showcasing his mastery of boosting public health with the bona fides of a newly minted pro-business eecutive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain,” with little care for vaccine mandates: In Florida, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.” 

When Christmas did come, it didn’t seem that the state of Florida was particularly bad off in relation to the rest of the nation–but the rising death rates related to COVID-19 dramatically grew across the peninsula in truly terrifying ways, drenching the peninsula pink, and belying those low transmission rates about which Gov. DeSantis’ office was so eager to tweet out.

The level of disinformation is rather without precedent, but speaks in many ways to the hyper-reality of maps of COVID-19 infection that were based on rather dubious and incomplete data providing a rudder in an age of uncertainty. DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out the CDC map to bate the anti-vaccine commentariat. Arriving pre-Thanksgiving, it seemingly celebrated the arrival of a new state of salubrity: the boundary lines of Florida popped bright blue of unearthly nature not because of what Florida was doing right, but was based on data of community transmission rates at days behind the rest of the nation: state data days out of synch with the national norm created the impression of statistically low transmission rates in the state, and south of the Mason-Dixon line, affirming how things were always better in Dixie.

DeSantis had been comparing the low rates of per capita COVID mortality in Florida, despite its large share of elderly, from March, 2021, claiming higher mortality rates for seniors in forty other states had offered evidence that his policies were indeed far more effective than those states that mandated lockdowns and suspended schools, insisting on the benefits of helping businesses and keeping local commerce flow. As FOX news commentators spun the CDC map of community transmission rates as evidence of nothing wrong with fighting masking mandates, or vaccinations.

Yet by mid-December, 2021, reality had reared its ugly head. Skyrocketing rates of infection from the Omicron variant proved the folly of asserting any containment of the coronavirus that any policy of one state might so easily fix, as the high rates of infection shifted the panorama of the pandemic, with the fifty millionth case of COVID-19 recorded, and deaths due to the virus across the country topping 800,000–far more than the deaths of the US Civil War, by recent estimates, and more than the current population of Seattle. And if Florida was increasingly as red as the nation, the rise of COVID death rates by the month’s end had effectively eroded all of DeSantis’ suggestion of the benefits of adhering to alternative models of public health care.

covid-map-us
CDC Dashboard, December 2, 2021

If the arrival of the Delta variant had led to the growth of mortality by another 100,000 in two and a half months, the advance of the more transmittable Omicron would stain the whole map red, bridging boundaries and state divides, as thirty three states hosted large infections, with little clear relation to their health policies–save perhaps low population rates and density. By Christmas 2021, national dashboards of infection rates made it clear that Omicron infections advanced not only through the northeast but along the sandy beaches of the Sunshine state.

National COVID Infections/Mapbox
December 20, 2021

Yet that single CDC map in the header to this post suggested low COVID transmission rates in Florida was suspiciously more than opportune. For it suggested, lo and behold, starkly lower transmission rates across the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something very right all along, as DeSantis continued to fence with Joseph Biden’s attempts to devise mandates of mask-wearing and vaccines, all but defining himself as a sort of shadow-government in opposition to the White House, in the manner, say, that now-disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo and California’s own Gavin Newsom played to Donald Trump, as if voices of stability in the time of need. DeSantis had provided an alter-reality of risk-free no masking or vaccines, freedoms at work and at school, refusing to limit the social interaction and tourism that Florida needs–even accepting cruise lines and offering to provide shipping ports–arguing that reopening was indeed in everyone’s interest, variants be damned: could it be that the CDC was offering a map validating that his policies were working well after all?

Florida boasted low transmission rates, putting the past history of the pandemic in the past, and effectively inaugurating a new news cycle that made this the map to count on and trust–the one dated that very day!–and putting lack of COVID vaccination out of folks’ minds as they booked their family travel plans for late 2021-2. Florida regained its storied status as a site for healthiness and well-being, unlike, it looked at that moment, like the rest of the nation, leading FOX commentators to spin new stories about the long-term success of DeSantis’ absence of clear public health plans.

For although Gov. DeSantis had pulled the plug in June, 2021 on a public-facing COVID-19 dashboard tracking daily updates on cases, deaths, and open hospital beds across the state, inviting those glued to their computers to take two giant steps back from the spate of emergency preparedness that seized the nation from March 2020, the CDC data vis plotted handily outdated data, skewed from rising rates of Omicron that were spooking the nation.  As there was no public source of infection rates in the state that was available anymore, the disturbing orange dots that crowded the Florida beaches on the COVID dashboard of the past seemed like it was dispensed with, and the seas calm and skies rosy in a bright blue of low transmission levels–despite DeSantis’ longstanding opposition to vaccine mandates or even public masking across the state.

Instead, the spokeswoman of the DeSantis regime tossed to right-wing news sources a rosy picture of the calm waters of Florida–he must have loved the blue azure that the state was tinted to proclaim low community transmission rates over the Thanksgiving weekend, as if it was a sea of tranquility in a nation that was revving up as word of Omicron spread. (“I hope you make it through Omicron,” the man behind me in Whole Foods said as if a neighborhood sage, finger of the pulse of the rising national pandemic anxiety that had recently seemed safely in the rear-view mirror.)

The CDC image of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity for DeSantis’ media savvy press secretary, who tweeted it out to her almost 22,000 Twitter followers as a dubious ethical claim of the health that the Sunshine State held for all future travelers, according to the current community transmission levels. Indeed, as this detail of the data vis shows, the lower than substantial levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, that the CDC had advised for all counties colored red for high level of transmission.

David Schultz/Orlando Sun Sentinel from US Center for Disease Control Data

The striking if deceptive visualization that Ron DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out on Thanksgiving morning had the benefit of depicting the desired “low community transmission” rates that seemed to confirm DeSantis’ attempts to bolster confidence in his public health policies, even if his longtime war on vaccination was not the success story that the map showing the state as an island of relative salubrity was based on an outdated tally of infection rates in the state whose public health policies seemed a concerted effort to sew fears of vaccine safety. DeSantis’ press secretary, who has cultivated a broad presence on twitter since gaining the job, aimed to promote public perceptions of the success of the Governor’s bellicose strategy of vaccine denialism and scoffing diminishment of public health risks.

The data vis was important to tweet out at 6:30 am to hit the national news outlets, because it helped begin or frame a narrative that Christina Pushaw, who had long questioned the value of a “piece of cloth” and long defended the Governors’ criticism of mask mandates. The low transmission rates that cast the peninsula as an island of salubrity amidst national rising fears distinguished Florida as a rare area in which the CDC was not returning to recommend mask-wearing even among those vaccinated–at least per appearances, or a superficial reading, endorsing the exemplary nature of its public health protocol. Unlike most all counties in the nation, prominently colored high-risk red to indicate the return of high transmission rates, Florida (a “red” state) was bright blue as a safety of haven as it had, conservative media argued, weathered out the storm of masking hysteria. All of Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break.

But the data was off, way off. In fact, the data vis used cherry picked numbers of a previous days that concealed the hight rates of transmission that existed for southern Georgia and all of Florida–as an updated vis of community transmission for the very next day revealed. The shifting image of transmission rates suggested the lag in data that the state was providing the CDC, as well as the greater risk for variants the nation now faces as a whole. But the data vis, entered into the media cycle of the nation, threw many off ground, in its apparent objectivity. Perhaps that was the job of a press secretary: to distribute any image that provided cover for the Governor who had faced criticism for his handling of COVID-19 by fashioning a new media cycle.

These maps show the levels of COVID community transmission in Florida's counties on Nov. 30, when data for the state was missing from the CDC's portal, and Dec. 1 after the state's data was updated. (Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

So intertwined is travel with the identity and economy of the state, that it was no surprise that the Florida beaches already made it grounds for public health concerns, and the measures during Spring Break, 2021, gave rise to a spike of COVID cases from new variants. In Spring, 2020, infections in Florida had just begun as its beaches filled, and rose again in the summer; but this Spring seemed the textbook case of exactly “what a lot of public health folks have been afraid of.” Increased partying brought rates of infection of a magnitude six times greater, with up to five variants, in the second spike of infections in the state.

The Governor came under fire for his resistance to mask-wearing, social distancing, and toleration of partly open restaurants and beaches, as the coronavirus literally ate into his popularity, and he became something of a “mini-Trump” as Trump’s popularity slid, and many questioned if his positions reflected political expediency and short-term gain, rather than Florida’s interest. But by May he was proclaiming “landmark legislation” banning “vaccine passports” in the state, boasting that the state had, unlike others “avoided protracted lockdowns and school closures in Florida because I have refused to take the same approach as other lockdown Governors,” boasting that the legislation forbade the danger of arbitrary school closures or shutterings, and that “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected.” A year after school closures rocked the nation, calling for a rededication of state funds to pay parents for home schooling on FOX, the economic nightmare of state over-reach replaced fears of infection.

Lindsey Burke: Coronavirus school closings should prompt states to pay  parents to educate kids in other ways | Fox News

March, 2020

DeSantis’ sense of himself as a savior grew in public statements and edicts denying any government overreach, his national ambitions were evident. Arguing that while many other states were just beginning to re-open, Florida was responsibly opening up. He cast the new COVID surge as but a summertime blip, as he embraced “freedom” as a choice of parents by keeping schools open, refusing policies of masking in public, and questioning the wisdom of masking or vaccines, even threatening to not pay county officials who enforce mask mandates, trusting the survival of FLorida’s tourism industry would consolidate his status. Governor DeSantis stood his ground as an ardent supporter of his anti-masking policies and a Trump legacy. He attracted admiration and interest of the communications professional, Christina Pushaw, whose admiration of how DeSantis stood up to “persuasive . . . false narratives” begun in the public press. Pushaw all but publicly identified herself as a new press secretary for the beleaguered governor, whose admiration of his public heath policies, landed her a job but helped to transform the press secretary to an alternative news source, to remap the risk of COVID-19 by a new public health narrative–a narrative that, until recently, had only lacked the right data maps to treat her office’s social media as a new news source.

A screen grab of a tweet written by Ron DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw.

The rise of infections in Florida echoed the first opening up Florida to tourism in early May, 2020 that continued through June. The recent promotion on social media of the low transmission rates in the state suggest difficulties in balancing a parallel calendar of tourism on which Florida has long relied to the accurate tally of community transmission–a tension that may go back, for Governor Ron DeSantis, to his office’s extended tussles with the GIS analyst at the Florida Dept. of Health who first constructed the dashboard of daily and cumulative infections in the state.

While the Governor had claimed that he would “follow the data” in his opening plans, there were deep concerns that the data was not transparent. When Pushaw wrote a set of attack pieces on the GIS analyst who felt that figures of infection rates were being manipulated, massaged or suppressed infection rates, DeSantis’ Lieutenant Governor promoted it as evidence of “one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.” DeSantis soon gained a new press secretary, who had essentially applied for the job by praising the skill with which the Florida governor had resisted public masking and vaccines, working to combat the “devastation caused by socialism . . . happening in our country,” and assailed the “big lie” about corruption that a GIS analyst had charged the state. The woman who had worked as an attache in Georgia for Mikheil Saakashvili, now working in Ukraine, might not be a common itinerary to Florida’s Governor’s office, but Pushaw wrote, “If there are any openings on the governor’s comms team, I would love to throw my hat in the ring.” Having assailed the GIS architect of the Dept. of Health COVID dashboard, she offered her services to Florida’s embattled governor to shift attention from COVID-19 infection rates.

After taking the post, Pushaw cultivated a broad social media presence by tweeting some 3,800 times in her first month on the job,–including one arguing watching one’s weight was more protection against COVID-19 than “a piece of cloth” or mask, and promoting the state’s organization for Florida residents of free “antibody infusion treatments” across the state.

Image
State-Run Monoclonal Clinics for COVID-19/@GovRonDeSantis, August 28, 2021

While the map of “state-run treatment sites” seemed to counter the data visualizations of local infection, it tried to set a counter-map to images of level infection or mortality. The notoriety of COVID-19 cases in Florida must have encouraged De Santis’ press secretary to retweet a CDC map dated November 25 that appeared to document low transmission rates in almost all state counties–offering evidence of the healthiness for Christmas visitors. Notwithstanding its Governor’s longstanding resistance to masking and infrequent masking in public spacearding one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.”. The map retweeted early morning on Thanksgiving Day a shout-out for shifting public perception of the state, as it paints the state as the being sole site of “low” community transmission in the nation, and followed the calls for more praise for DeSantis’ brave strategy of handling the pandemic, since Pushaw became press secretary, both from the Wall Street Journal (Media Ignore Florida COVID Recovery,” October 31, 2021) and Fox News, on which DeSantis echoed Pushaw’s points as he claimed poor media coverage in relation to COVID-19 “deadly” in mid-November, after a rough summer in which 60,000 deaths related to COVID-19 afflicted the state. In early November, One America News Network promoted a special report from this summer (“America’s Governor and Florida’s Grit”) about DeSantis’ guaranteeing of increasing access across Florida of “a life-saving COVID-19 drug” that reduced severe illness.

It was hardly surprising with such lead-up of an alternative narrative on Conservative news that Pushaw seemed to seek to boost the narratives that were launched in conservative media when she retweeted a new data map of COVID community transmission news on 6:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning as if to target Christmas travel plans to be discussed at the harvest feast that rather highlighted the far lower transmission of COVID-19 relative to the rest of the country as fears of COVID variants multiplied nationwide. The map with national imprimatur showed a drop of community transmission levels in Florida alone, and seemed to offer some back-of-the-envelope evidence that the spikes of previous years in the southern states and in Florida had created local resistance to the coronavirus and its new variants.

The bifurcated image of the nation that showed Florida as, essentially, the sole site of low COVID transmission, would be sure to attract attention and conversation, political ethics be damned. Flying in the face of the longstanding resistance of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to curtail out-of-state tourism that encouraged him to keep the state open to travel, DeSantis’ new press secretary used the map to show Florida open for tourism, after having weathered three waves of spiking coronavirus infections. Perhaps the state’s poor planning for public health in the past by lifting guidances ofr mask mandates might, DeSantis ventured, create safety in the beaches of the Sunshine State in a winter of variants, as the ‘conservative’ media–Wall Street Journal and FOX–had hinted might be the case.

DeSantis’ groundless claims of safety found somewhat predictable support from FOX commentators in sustaining “natural resistance” to COVID-19 from past exposure, a “natural” immunity better than vaccination, was a data-based strategy, although what sort of data they were using is unclear. (The CDC finds those who had recovered from COVID-19 but were not vaccinated were five times more likely to contract it again than the fully vaccinated.) The conflicts DeSantis’ office seemed to manage between a state economy dependent on tourism and the calendar of increased community transmission suggests a lack of transparency, but also a duplicity based on improvised off-the-cuff diagnoses of a dangerous disease.

The lack of COVID-19 transparency that had been a continuing issue in the state since 2020 had reared its ugly head again, and just in time for post-Thanksgiving Christmas planning. Indeed, the absence of transparency was particularly troubling as we increasingly depend on dashboards, tracing, and positivity rates in grappling with the virus and its ongoing mutations. As the self-declared attack dog of the GOP, Governor Ron DeSantis was by 2021 boosting the dubious concept of “natural immunity against COVID-19” as the forefront of a fight against mandating vaccines for large businesses, exempting from vaccination all recovered from Covid; with full vaccination rates in Florida about 60%, around the national average, Florida ranked twenty-first among states providing at least a single shot to residents. Those already vaccinated in Florida were mostly elderly–a demographic on which DeSantis had dutifully concentrated to provide the vaccine. But many residents in the state, liberated from mask-mandates, were partying, barhopping, hitting the beaches, as masking was unenforced at schools, kept open five days a week, or on cruises–DeSantis promised cruise ship companies that in Florida, they wouldn’t need “vaccine passports.” Bahamas Paradise Princess Cruise Company promised that “safety, fun, and vaccines” were all priorities as it docked in Palm Beach on June 25, having suspended per CDC regulations on March 14, 202, and the fireworks festivies cancelled the previous July 4 due to COVID restrictions were planned again, now with a Cuban reggaeton as a featured guest for the festivities, voluntary masking, as Florida as a state checked out from updating its COVID-19 dashboard, tracking updated cases and deaths across the state.

Governor DeSantis, amidst COVID spikes, emerged as a Trumpian cheerleader standing steadfast in against a “biomedical security state” as COVID infections spiked yet again: “Florida, we’re a free state–people are going to be free to chose to make their own decisions.”

Daily Cases of COVID-19 Reported in Florida by State and Local Health Agencies/New York Times

Days after DeSantis challenged Biden’s authority by declaring “We’re respecting people’s individual freedom in this state,” and banning businesses from adopting vaccine mandates–even though the state’s sizable elderly population was demonstrated to be at risk for co-morbidity.

At the same time, a DeSantis spokesperson and press secretary retweeted a rather striking map with CDC imprimatur made rounds on Twitter: the striking data visualization suggested that rates of community transmission plummeted in comparison to the lower forty-eight. While the image depended on the outdated data Florida provided the CDC, a symbolically powerful image as rising alarm about rising rates of transmission injected fear in holiday plans.

DeSantis’ energetic and telegenic press secretary, Christina Pushaw, whose Twitter profile shows her pushing her hair over her head with a smile as if seeking to embody Florida cool, seemed all but to channel a vacation advertisement in her retweet. In promoting the alleged decline in COVID-19 cases from it appeared that Florida had been granted a reprieve as folks were finalizing winter vacation plans in the face of worries about increased infection rates. Pushaw’s tweets had been flagged for vacuuming up right-wing media–a constituency to which she had belong–and had already been suspended once from Twitter in the past. But she retweeted a CDC data vis to promote the apparent decline in rates as evidence that the state provided the secure vacation spot to soak in sunshine this winter after a stressful year.

@ChristinaPushaw

The bright blue expansed that so conspicuously appeared to isolate the peninsula in a sea of high rates of community transmission of COVID cases appeared to promise Florida offered some sense of shelter from the storm. Yet in spite of all its apparent objectivity, the CDC data vis Pushaw tweeted out on social media didn’t really prove the assertion of Keesman Koury of the Florida Department of Health that low cases of community transmission the data vis registered reflected the “result of our innovative and strategic COVID-19 response that focuses on prevention and treatment,” as if that included no mask mandates or social distancing. As if providing evidence of how much the global pandemic was fed by local bad messaging and toxicity, Pushaw boasted of its safety as if promoting a healthy vacation site in the tradition of the State Tourist Board: “Florida still has the lowest case rate per 100,000 in the entire country and this continues to decrease,” as if the data vis provided cutting edge news, sufficient to rethink the state’s ham-handed response to preventing the virus’ spread.

The tweet amounted to outright disinformation–and showed sense of the media savvy of a National Interest journalist turned DeSantis spokesperson known for offensive and off-topic tweets of scurrilous content. Few out-of-staters may have known that she had been accused of stalking the Florida Dept. of Health geographer and data analyst Rebekah Jones, the geographer responsible for having publishing and curating data of COVID-19 infections daily tracking infections, hospitalizations, and deaths related to infection across the state–having built the COVID-19 dashboard to track cases and deaths. Jones had been terminated by Florida’s Department of Health for “extensive, unauthorized, communication” about the dashboard–where she was in charge of answering public questions–and unceremoniously fired May 18, 2020, after raising questions about changes in the publication of data and functionality from May 5, including the combination of tallies of total negative COVID tests and positives, perhaps to lower the calculation of COVID positivity on the dashboard she designed, and the re-tallying of deaths certified as due to coronavirus infections.

As the beaches of South Florida were readying to re-open, Jones, fearing the state fudged public health data irresponsibly, unethically adding negative tests in a false aggregate–even if conducted for the same person–to diminish the ranking of positivity, even as DeSantis proclaimed he was “following the data” in re-opening. Months earlier, Jones had created the dashboard and apologized for the lowering of mortality rates announced per Florida’s Dept. of Health, in the course of reclassifying many coronavirus-related deaths, as the Dept. and adding fewer deaths despite rising mortality rates in Florida to deaths verified as related to COVID-19. The state argued it would “continue to provide the most up-to-date information to arm Floridians with the tools and knowledge necessary to flatten the curve,” but seems to have shifted the nature of its total counts of deaths or indeed of positive cases of infection. But, unlike the state dashboard, Jones showed the density of confirmed COVID infections and the few Florida counties which, by her count, ready to reopen. 

1. The data aggregated on Jones’ alternative dashboard suggested that rather than the curve flattened, only two of sixty-seven counties in Florida met the state’s established criteria for re-opening. She complained Florida’s Dept. of Health had wanted her to delete the report card of infections per county, as it showed “that no counties, pretty much, were ready for reopening;” FDOH didn’t want that visible on the dashboard in ways that would “draw attention” to an inconvenient truth, she said in mid-June. (At the same time, the state had witheld data on deaths certifiably related to COVID-19 at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, unlike other states, to keep figures low.)

As the data guru in charge of publishing the data, Jones would be expected to be central to any public health work that was based on the data. But she alleged her refusal to lower the state’s positivity rating to allow it to meet its target for reopening led her to be dismissed: as the state became an epicenter for infection in March 2020, the state faced increasing pressure to meet goals to be “ready to open” for the summer.

Rebekah Jones in her office at the Florida Department of Health.
Rebekah Jones at Florida Dept. of Public Health/Photo Courtesy Rebekah Jones

Despite noting the “dramatic changes” on the data portal of concern back in May, 2020, Jones, whose dashboard had long been trusted as a source, seemed to feel it had swung beyond her control: she would only say in early May, “I helped them get it back running a few times but I have no knowledge about their plans, what data they are now restricting, what data will be added and when, or any of that.

The long familiar site which Florida residents had used to orient themselves to daily updates of county-by-county breakdowns of new and total positive cases of COVID infections, virulence, hospitalizations, and deaths had shifted,–about a month before infections would peak–

Woman who built Florida's COVID-19 dashboard removed from project | wtsp.com
April 22,2020

–and infections in the state broke previous records, adding nearly 9,000 new cases in a new daily record by June 22, 2020, before the arrival of the Delta variant.

New COVID-19 cases for Friday, June 26 - IMAGE VIA FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Screengrab via Florida Dept of Health, for Friday, June 26 2020

The numbers of positive cases for state residents grew, as hospitalizations, during that very summer, when they ballooned, and multiple counties in the state grew deep blue.

SCREENGRAB VIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

As if in response to what she contended was an unmerited ouster from Florida’s Dept. of Health for failing to fix datasets, Jones quickly founded her own alternative “rogue” informative COVID-19 dashboard, Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard.

2. While DeSantis had outlined, under the approving eyes of then President Trump, plans to re-open the state by placing “public health-driven data at the forefront” along fixed “benchmarks,” his data guru insisted her refusal to be part of promoting “misleading and politically driven narrative that ignored the data;” she constructed an alternative dashboard showing only one of the sixty-seven counties in the state revealed sufficiently low positivity to warrant reopening or easing restrictions on social distancing. The exclusion of positive antibody tests on the Dept. Health website was clarified on the new site, which aimed to be far updated daily and far more user-friendly when it appeared in June, 2020, and tracked the rise of positive cases that summer, adding increasing features of legibility and of tracking change over time.

Florida's Coronavirus Dashboards
Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard, June 2020

The new site foregrounded total “COVID Positive People” detected in both PCR and Antigen tests in running tallies, listing new positives from the previous day, running counts of recoveries, and available hospital beds beside a county-by-county breakdown, the dashboard offered a far more synthetic fine-grained map of the COVID-19 ground-game of public health to grow public trust. The rival dashboard that debuted in mid-June aimed to show accurate geodata of “what’s going on in a straightforward, nonpolitical way,” FloridaCOVIDAction.com synthesized publicly available open data, mined from state reports but not reported straightforwardly on state-run websites.

As it became clear that the data for which Jones and a group of epidemiologists had been never incorporated in DeSantis’ vaunted plans to rely on the data in plans for re-opening the state; reopening brought a five-fold surge in COVID infections by mid-July. The expansion surpassed the rate and number of Covid-19 infections than any other state in the pandemic, breaking records for the highest number reported in a single day–15,300–or in New York in early April, during the worst outbreak in the city. The wave, which might well have been prevented, strained hospital and treatment by antivirals. It called into question the logic of DeSantis’ reopening plans, or how much he had relied as promised on health-driven data, but a blind adherence to the sense of “best practices” that could allow the economy to be open, beaches and restaurants stay open with adequate distancing, and schools not be closed–meeting short term demands and needs for the summer economy, but sewing skepticism.

April 23, 2020/Drew Angerer

The state in fact seemed to lack even sufficient testing to measure the scale of the outbreak, even as he reopened the state at a far faster clip than New York or California, re-opening all gyms, bars, indoor dining at restaurants, schools, pools and salons and ending stay-at-home orders but a month after they went into effect, to welcome tourists to the state from Memorial Day, increasing the risks to the state’s older residents greatly, before closing the bars in late June. By November, after an other rise in COVID cases ran through the state, Jones’ public message to the Florida Dept. of Public Health to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead” as the dashboard stood at 17,460 COVID-related deaths in the state, law enforcement served a search warrant at Jones’ home, guns drawn, seize the laptops from which the former GIS manager of the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection ran the alt dashboard–“all my hardware and tech”–seven months after her firing from the Dept. of Public Health.

The dashboard of rising COVID infections released on an ArcGIS platforms was a bombshell that placed her in the public eye–and was regularly updated. The alternative website seems to have led to her attack as a discontent “rogue” rather than a whistleblower in the national news. Its release lead to subsequent national media slamming of Jones in conservative media as a serial social media abuser, as outlets tagged the former public health official as a “super-spreader of COVID-19 disinformation,” to defuse her own charges of community transmission. Jones was charged of being guilty of having openly invented lies “about Ron DeSantis’ Press Secretary” using social media to pedal pandemic falsehoods. @GeoRebekah temporarily de-platformed on Twitter, Pushaw crowed that her suspension revealed Jones’ untrustworthiness and abuse of the medium, calling it “long overdue.” No doubt infuriated and flustered by DeSantis’ own consistently relax and dangerously reckless policies on keeping schools open and removing COVID protection policies, Pushaw must have been not only frustrated, but a target of DeSantis’ ire.

Pushaw went further by attacking the GIS systems manager as nothing less than “the Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 disinformation,” echoing the bombast of the DeSantis regime. DeSantis and his office dutifully applauded Jones’ temporary suspension as evidence for her duplicity, as guilty of “defamatory” statements and a “COVID super-spreader,” happy to see her public profile reduced. Comparing the systems manager to an Irish-born cook whose asymptomatic infection spread to her employers what was known as Salmonella oddly served to demonize her as an immigrant carrier of disease, echoing Trump’s obsession with “foreign” origins of COVID-19; it shifted attention from dangerous mortality levels in the state, and gestured to an era when the pathogenic transmission of salmonella was not understood, more than inadequate responses of the Governor’s office to three waves of COVID-19 in the state. A leader who had and would repeatedly cultivate “strongman tactics” in a dangerous time, as Ruth Ben Ghiat recently noted as this blog was first written, DeSantis performed a version and vision of leadership that seemed to establish himself as an autocratic leader of Florida, with a proposed a new Florida State Guard to assist the National Guard in public emergencies, that he would oversee as a state militia, that could act “not encumbered by the federal government” or federal regulations, from federal masking policy to vaccination mandates, and banned vaccine mandates or masking in public as unsafe and unscientific.

DeSantis chose another official to be an attack dog to step up vaccine disinformation. The campaign of disinformation continued DeSantis had appointed a surrogate “State Surgeon General” who stood beside vaccine skeptics who encouraged misinformation from claiming the vaccine altered your genetic RNA to a lack of scientific consensus in its value. Surgeon General Ladopo spread dangerous COVID denialism, instructing the public “to stick with their intuition and their sensibilities,” demeaning the public health value of the vaccine a misguided “religion” and emphasizing the monoclonal antibodies treatments DeSantis has vigorously promoted in the place of vaccines–and indeed as an alternative public health policy. In so doing, he mimicking the public health maps like Alabama’s “COVID-19 Dashboard Map” that foregrounded Monoclonal Antibody Therapy (mAb) therapy as a counterpart to Vaccine Distribution in an ESRI Story Map; Alabama’s Dept. of Health boasted a 60-70% success rate at “preventing high-risk patients” from being hospitalized–a strategy of off-loading any public health care policy or plan.

Monoclonal antibody therapy
Alabama COVID-19 Dashboard;Non-Hospital Providers of Monoclonal Antibody Therapy

If we are approaching a time in the history of COVID-19 when our fears of catching the disease may soon be replaced by an acceptance that we may become infected, and will manage that infection, the hope to navigate infections that would be more severe among the unvaccinated populations suggest a tinderbox that will require an armed guard of the sort DeSantis has imagined as running when he announced in Pensacola his plans for a military unit with uniforms tagged “FLORIDA” rather than “U.S. ARMY” from a podium bearing the sign “Let Us Alone” that echoed the “Don’t Tread on Florida” sign displayed at a special October session of the state legislature to counter federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The curious unveiling of a “civilian volunteer force that will have the ability to assist the national guard in state-specific emergencies” seemed design either in case of another surge, or to support DeSantis’ distinctive public health policies. The banner “Let US Alone” first displayed in the 1841 inauguration of Florida’s first Governor, William Moseley, was a cause for celebrating the independent health policies in the state, which had by then reached the third-highest number of infections in the nation–3,730,395.–and the third-highest number of deaths, 52,647.

The image shard of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, Florida’s own Gadsden flag was unveiled at a press conference speaking out against vaccine as the new logo of the state: the alligator with gaping jaws, ready to attack or defend its ground, was tweeted out on October 21, 2021 by @GovRonDeSantis as a sign of resilience and power in the face of the fear of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags. The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis showcased the pro-business benefits of his health politics with the confidence of a newly minted executive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain.” In Florida, unlike Biden’s America, DeSantis proclaimed as a rallying call, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.” 

DON'T TREAD ON FLORIDA': Ron DeSantis Promotes 'Pro-Freedom' Flag | Sean  Hannity

Gadsden flag - Wikipedia
Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden Flag, beloved by separatists–and displayed at the door of a neighbor of mine in Berkeley with the slightly menacing words “Don’t know what it is? Look it up!”–has of course become a treasured emblem of the right, and Patriot groups, as well as militias, and was flown on the U.S. Capitol briefly on the morning of January 6, 2021.

3. Pushaw and Jones had a long history of entanglement. The ways that their fraught relations determined the battles over the local messaging on the pandemic remind us of how its global spread was brewed in the toxic channels of local miscommunications about public health. Governor DeSantis had only hired Pushaw as a press secretary, per WaPo, after realizing public messaging on COVID-19 crucial to his public image. The Florida Governor seems to have been especially keen on Pushaw’s exposé of Jones’ “big lie” about DeSantis’ reticence in releasing total counts of positives, long before he restricted state dashboards to weekly updates of limited information by June, 2021, as total cases of infection surpassed 1,7783,720, creating a crisis in calm as the state faced a second spike. By then, Florida ceased reporting deaths or infections daily to the CDC, making them hard to tally with regularity, and shifted the format to weekly tallies of vaccination and infections, as the “surveillance dashboard” radioed staying away from the beaches around Daytona Beach or from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach, even as new cases seemed to decline, and hospitalizations grew, as the daily tabulations of resident deaths and COVID positive suddenly ceased.

COVID dashboard 020821
June 4, 2021

The articles Pushaw had written attacking Jones’s whistleblower status may have encouraged a long-running conflict that led her to be charged with “computer crimes”; Jones’ charged the press secretary with having stalked the GSI analyst obsessively and aggressively, slurring her reputation after she was fired, allegedly for insubordination for refusing to undercount infections and magnify the number of people tested. The vindictive attacks on the data analyst obscured the problems of reduced clarity of replacing the daily updates on which viewers had relied with weekly tallies.

Florida Covid-19 Dashboard and Surveillance Dashboard
Florida's Rising COVID-19 Numbers: What Do They Mean? : Coronavirus Updates  : NPR
June 24, 2020/Florida Dept. of Health Public Dashboard

The Surveillance Dashboard offered a comprehensive running count and cumulative tally that Jones was charged with having crashed before her dismissal from the Dept. of Health, six months before the police entered her house in December, 2020, weapons drawn, to seize her computers as the novel coronavirus was spreading widely across the state.

Despite the value of allowing state residents to orient themselves to the spread of COVID-19, Jones disturbingly suggested the state was playing fast and loose by manipulating data of infection rates by slimming counts of positives by omitting almost 10,000 antibody tests from its tally. Yet by June 22, 2020, twice broke records for single-day infections in a week: the state dashboard of daily data announced a new record of nearly 8,000 infections and 13.5% positivity rate–a critical number just over the early baseline for re-opening of 10% positivity–even if the WHO baseline for reopening was set in May, 2020, in preparation for summer, at 5% or lower for two weeks. Playing fast and loose with time-stamped data in troubling ways, DeSantis assured the public in mid-June as positivity grew that journalists should realize the past was more important than the present in his allegedly data-driven response, rather than the policies he had adopted: “the main thing is just for folks to look, in May, if you remember end of April, May all the way through, you know coronavirus was relatively quiet in Florida. You had manageable cases. Our positivity rate was 4 or 5 percent consistently.

Only in late June, 2020, was a Public Health Advisory issued that back-tracked on Governor DeSantis’ longstanding objections to preventive measures like public mask-wearing, social distancing, and caution. In fact, some 20 million cloth masks distributed statewide that “all individuals in Florida should wear . . . in any setting where social distancing is not possible” and social interactions limited for all over age sixty-five. The cautionary tone was not alarmist, keeping bars and restaurants open in the sixty-four counties it defined as in “Phase 2,” and allowing all retail businesses and gyms to operate at full capacity, entrusting their clientele to practice social distancing from one another, as part of a “plan on public recovery.

Coronavirus Rising in Florida, Arizona, California and Texas: What We Know  - The New York Times
June 24, 2020

Yet the Governor, in his wisdom and care for his pubic perception , issued an Executive Order Affirming Freedom to Choose emulating the then-President, by June 2021, after school boards considered adopting mask-wearing mandates for their students, as a part of schools being “open for instruction” since the summer of 2020, noting how “masking may lead to negative health” and the CDC “guidance . . . lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.”

By August, as the weekly counts of new infections surpassed 110,000, according to CDC data the most in any state of the country, Floridians missed getting daily updates on the counts of infections per county. The old regularly updated dashboard has became a focus of public attention in what seemed a laboratory case of an unfolding public health disaster–DeSantis had phased out county-by-county daily breakdowns as he issue weekly tallies, having argued that the state had rounded the bend, and removed the regular daily updating of dashboards on which Floridians had long relied on to orient themselves. Age breakdowns and a geographic distribution by county–features of the old dashboard–were no longer available, even as schools were reopening, parents deciding on vaccination and masking, and public trust frayed.

June 22, 2020, via Florida Dept. of Health (screengrab)

Since the escalating records of early summer cases in 2020, the state dashboard had provided a familiar breakdown of infections, offering real time information based on age in a county-by-county breakdown that all of a sudden wasn’t there as a guidepost for local decision at a critical time, once it had been removed.

More crucially to this post, the constraints over how much information of COVID transmission was publicized–and how accurately it was compiled–suggested that DeSantis’ office commitment to ensuring the calendar on which the state’s economy for tourism depended had displaced the monitoring of a calendar for community transmission. By June, 2020, the Florida Dept. of Health substituted weekly COVID tallies in place of the daily breakdown and count that Jones had worked, explaining that the state wanted to streamline information and reported daily case data to the CDC. The new weekly dashboard failed to orient users to a geographic distribution of COVID-19 or what counties infections had occurred, so prominent in the old dashboard; it provided little data that could be drilled down into, by abandoning a county-by-county distribution and dropping the stark visualization of state counties as a “third wave” of COIVID-19 infections hit in 2021, and DeSantis mused that the county-by-county breakdown might be useful to some.

July-August “Third Wave” of COVID-19 infections in 2021 in Florida/New York TImes

DeSantis proclaimed the state had turned the bend. But as Florida led the country in newly confirmed cases in early August, 2021, folks wondered why the daily dashboard of old was no longer readily available as a tool of visualization, worrying that the daily updates were pulled by the Governor’s office prematurely in June, as the pandemic led to more hospitalizations in the state than ever before, but the Governor’s office, rather than offering public health data to state residents, asked for patience “in returning to normalcy”–even after twenty-four days with over 1,000 new cases discovered daily. And in tweeting a map of low transmission rates in the post-Thanksgiving days, claiming COVID cases had begun to “bottom out in Florida,” while they started to peak nationwide, Pushaw seemed to seek to clean up Florida’s public image, by directing attention on social media to an alternative reality that may have benefitted a map that rendered rates of community transmission taken, albeit a map that had benefitted from the new timeline at which Florida was releasing data to the CDC. Indeed, the release of figures of community transmission at different times from the country seemed to offer evidence of how clear-headed policies had kept local transmission rates low, even if the data ws comparing apples and oranges.

The tweet seemed to seek to erase memory of those dashboards of the recent past, that might well have kept tourists away from Florida, due to high positivity rates. The apparently credible picture showing low risks of viral transmission statewide was a retrospective reprieve of sorts for the inexcusably poor public health policies of the past. Although the CDC had updated data on community transmission for the nation, the state received a rather convenient break: for local data had ceased to be updated with much regularity for Florida, compared to the rest of the union, rendering its counties an almost continuous bright blue. Pushaw’s early a.m. tweet was the perfect graphic for her smiling Twitter profile, which recalled the vacation ads of old that promoted the salubrity of the state’s sunny beaches.

The imaginary fault-line that seemed to isolate the panhandle and peninsula as a sight of purity and safety was itself a creation of the lag in the reporting of state data, rather than reflecting a break in community virulence or the “bottoming out” of COVID cases. But the implication that Florida had suddenly become an area of low community transmission reflected cherry-picked data crafting a false comparison between apples and oranges, so to speak, since the state’s data had stopped updating as the rest of the country suffered from rising rates of COVID-19. Was the absence of inclusion of available data on the national COVID data tracker a mistake, or a convenient untruth of deeply unethical nature?

The maps of cases, infection levels, and fatalities, had been if only six states have mask-wearing mandates for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, whereas in 2020, forty-three states had adopted them, the low levels of transmission seemed to promote an image of azure seas across the peninsula that was oddly akin to the images promoting the Vacation Land U.S.A state from the mid-1950s, presided by a beneficent smiling sun, whose rays boded health for all–where the sun was able to be drunk to good health daily in the state’s unofficial elixir, fresh orange juice. Concerns about the continued popularity of winter beach destinations during the rise of the new Omicron variant may have been leading many to rethink their vacations, but the data vis was dropped at a strategic time to plug the beaches’ open space as a space for rejuvenation, a ready get-away for those seeking escape from COVID stress.

“Come on Down to Fabulous Florida,”
State of Florida Tourism advertisement placed in National Geographic, 1952

The couple romping through the surf promised escape in a “lovely peninsula, with its 30,000 lakes and 1,400 miles of mainland coastlines, which is continuously cooled by refreshing [ocean] breezes” is removed from the fears of coastal erosion that recently reared its heads in the collapse of the Seaside FL towers. But the coast beckoned as a site of sociability, for many who had been spooked by the rise of COVID-19, the beach offered an image of health in ways that rehabilitated the classic cinematic myth of the sunshine state of ocean fun.

The past imaginary was one of all carefree abandon, promising a year-round vacationland, outside of the normal flow of time or the seasonal change–as the 1954 advertisement put it, “WARM in Winter–COOL in Summer!“–that would produce “a fabulous state of well-being.”

1954 State Travel Advertisement, “Fabulous Florida . . . WARM in Winter-COOL in Summer!

The “extra special” nature of Florida as “one of the world’s greatest concentrations of fun facilities” was tied to its beaches, but stretched “border to border,” mapping a vacationland free from worry. Was Republicans’ not readiness of to nix the federal budget over mask mandates, and resist previous mandates on vaccination that would buck the federal advisory that folks “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing” in areas of high or significant transmission risks, mandates for the unvaccinated only existed in reliably “blue” states–California, Connecticut, and New York–where they did not face legislative pushback, and the mask mandate for all only applied to those island territories with uncertain public health infrastructure–Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands–where an outbreak could be devastating, and where Democrats acknowledged the public costs as critical, from Hawaii to New Mexico to Nevada to Illinois, where the COVID scare remained fresh in memory.

Florida was long an outlier of mask-wearing, especially on its beaches, per this classic Mapbox data visualization of the likelihood of meeting masked friends in public from mid-July 2021, that reflected the split sort of realities with which the nation had been confronting COVIDThe rarity of spotting mask-wearing in midsummer 2021 was super spotty in the Sunshine State, especially on its beaches, in a state seemingly torn by parallel realities.

Wat is the Likelihood of Encountering Groups of Five People Following Mask-Wearing Mandate in the United States? New York Times/July 17 2020

The stark local divisions of adopting masks in public space won world-wide attention early in the pandemic. No masking regulations on beachfronts were a sort of albatross for the state governor DeSantis, famous for issuing a forceful Executive Order later in the month, resisting school boards trumpeted the absence of “well-grounded scientific justification” that mask-wearing reduced transmission and finding an absence of sufficient evidence masking could reduce community transmission in the state schools, had openly run against national opinion and allowed “all all parents have the right to make health care decisions for their minor children” affirmed patients’ “rights under Florida law” and vowed to protect all Floridians’ constitutional freedoms. By the time that the new CDC visualization dropped, anxiety was growing the rebound of COVID-19 both in Delta and omicron variants would kill the tourism industry for Christmas Vacation 2021, and DeSantis’ spokesperson must have been primed.

The flimsily persuasive nature of the cherry-picked data of the data vis can be handily spot checked on the CDC website itself, by stepping back just one day for a better view of the risk levels of putting caution aside and heading to the beach. For the lag of a few days of renewing data reminds us of how important the daily release of accurate data is, and how easily it can skew a national image of community transmission that seems to provide a “snapshot” of national levels. Florida’s rates of infection didn’t remain an island from the nation, so much as a lag in reporting failed to show comparable rates of infection to the rest of the nation. The differences were not so pronounced: indeed, the previous day–November 24–mapped the state as being a site of moderate and substantial transmission that could not have suddenly shifted in but one day, so much as the new visualization fit the “narrative” about DeSantis and COVID-19, more than the situation that Floridians experienced on the ground.

And flipping back just a few days previous, the stark divides of low rates of transmission and the substantial to high rates in other states offered little grounds for off the cuff collective diagnoses of the greater hardiness that exposure to COVID due no mask mandates offered a benefit to the state’s population, or might in fact be considered a viable public health policy: a month earlier, transmission seems roughly equivalent on the Florida or Texas coast, and relied on uniform assessment and tallies–but we may have reason to suspect Florida of undercounting to keep its numbers low.

The lay of the land was basically not at all that clear-cut. One can only hope that few made travel plans after seeing that bright blue peninsula on social media: a better bet, it seems, would be Puerto Rico, if the mask-wearing mandate could be tolerated by visitors. In fact, the very areas that visitors might be hoping to travel–from Daytona Beach to Cocoa Beach, or the area around Miami and South Beach, down near the peninsula’s tip–suggested areas of substantial and even high risk, save for the area lying in the Everglades.

Community Transmission by County in the United States, November 26-December 3,
CDC Covid-19 Data Tracker by County

Indeed, a Moderate Risk seemed the fate of much of the state, if the tracker were looked at with regularly updated data sets. And this is relying on the numbers that the Department of Health provided–numbers that might be well scrutinized, given the complaints their former data guru had raised. All said and done, the “narrative” was not one of the power of a Governor to imagine his ability to purge COVID infections from the state, so much as a burst of virulence that demanded to be mapped and tracked in better detail.

CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker, November 26-December 2 2021

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