The homogenization of America — through national TV and politics, cheap transportation and big online or nationwide businesses such as Walmart and Amazon — is a longstanding story. Regardless of how true it is, or ever was, a new truth is emerging from the pandemic: In the last year, the differences among the U.S.’s states and regions have become increasingly apparent — and they are more temperamental than political.
I recently spent two weeks in Miami Beach, and the mood was festive. On the street, many people wore masks, but once they entered the packed restaurants and clubs, the masks came off and the partying started. (Disclosure: I am vaccinated, and was an observer, not a participant.) The midnight curfew was by no means always respected.
That scene might make you recoil in horror, and many observers predicted catastrophe for Florida’s policies. But Florida’s death toll is close to the national average, and Governor Ron DeSantis is extremely popular. The state’s lockdowns were never very strict, its schools have been open since August, and Miami’s NBA team is welcoming fans, albeit with seating restrictions. The economy has been booming for some time, in part because people who wish to spend money or organize get-togethers have been drawn to Florida.
And my sense is that most Floridians feel vindicated. I spoke to several people who admitted they had had COVID earlier in the year and described the experience with a giggle or a smirk, as if it were nothing serious. Just last week DeSantis announced that Florida would have nothing to do with plans for vaccine passports.
You might think this is all because Florida is a Republican-leaning state. But Donald Trump won only 51.2 percent of the vote there last year, and Joe Biden won Miami-Dade County by 7 percentage points.
I read broadly similar reports about Texas — namely, that the state has remained fairly open, enforcement has been lax, and the citizenry is reasonably happy with these policies. Many of Texas’s biggest cities have Democratic mayors, but the overall response, even in those cities, has been closer to that of a red state.
San Francisco is one obvious point of contrast. The schools still have not reopened, with no clear date in sight, even though the teachers have been offered vaccines. (Meanwhile, the school board decided to rename many of its schools.) Large public gatherings are rare, and inside dining has been largely prohibited. Like Florida, the city can boast of very low death rates from COVID, and like Floridians, many San Franciscans seem proud of their course.
I am also struck by the differences between the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington. Northern Virginia, where I live, has been more open for longer and has felt commercially more vital. Virginia, though a solid blue state, has shown it belongs to the Southeast in a way that neighboring Maryland does not. At the same time, Northern Virginia, where mask wearing is common and reasonably disciplined, is not at all like neighboring West Virginia.
As these state and regional differences have become more vivid, might they guide the future evolution of those states and regions? Now that Northern Virginia has seen how different it is from Maryland’s Montgomery County, it might continue to behave differently. What if Texas becomes more Texas (is that possible?) and Florida reimagines itself as a center of party culture and risk-taking? San Francisco might end up as America’s most fearful and restricted place, while Nashville (where unemployment is just 4.4 percent) emerges with a newfound confidence.
Overall the Southeast would seem to be a big winner, as the psychological effects of low rates of unemployment may prove more durable than the effects of high rates of casualties.
I have taken several trips through the U.S. during the pandemic and been shocked by just how different each region has felt. New York City seemed grave and serious. Downtown seemed to be a new center of town, and Times Square, with its theaters closed tourists absent, felt like a devastation from a science fiction dystopia.
Maybe, as vaccination spreads, all of this will be forgotten within months. Yet I can’t help but wonder if instead America’s different states and regions will lean into their new identities — and, ultimately, their new destinies.