Josh Freed: Florida feels like another planet compared to Quebec

During my visit, I saw customers shaking hands with their server, as if to say, “Thank you, I’ll have some sprouts for dessert,” writes Josh Freed.

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I have a confession to make: I recently fled Quebec for a week, a refugee from Legault’s 2.0 curfew and lockdown rules.

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A friend told me about an available condo in Florida, my wife and I made a last second decision to get away briefly and work remotely. But the second we landed, we felt like we had arrived on another planet.

While Quebec is in total lockdown mode, Florida is Cowboyland, where you barely know COVID is happening, despite rates of new cases and hospitalizations much higher than ours.

It’s madness by Canadian standards, but an eye-opening experience. For starters, everyone is out, filling bars, restaurants, movies, gyms and crowded sports arenas.

Stores and supermarkets do not require masks, but some cashiers and customers wear them, although often under the nose or chin – Florida style. It seems a way of announcing: “Look, I’m masked!” when they are not.

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The restaurants are fully open and looking at some they are packed. Servers can choose to wear masks, and at least half don’t.

In the ever-friendly America, some customers even shake hands with their waiters before leaving, to say, “Thanks, I’ll have some sprouts for dessert.”

It’s easy to spot Canadians in restaurants, as we’re the ones wearing proper masks and sitting nervously on the patio, even in the rain.

You can also see the difference in the media. In Quebec, COVID completely dominates the news, because almost nothing else is happening.

In Florida, it’s the other way around.

I recently checked out the prestigious Miami Herald on a day when Florida had more than 70,000 daily new cases — nearly twice as many per capita as Quebec, and so did their hospitalizations.

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But the first mention of COVID anywhere in the newspaper was exactly 18 stories down, with the headline: “Amid Omicron surge, hospitals stretched. What can Florida lawmakers do?

Ignore it, as always, I guess. Meanwhile, the 19th story was: “Florida COVID update: 71,742 new cases as hospitalized patients increase.”

Among the many stories played much higher were: “Miami Marlins appoint minor league affiliate managers” and “Microbial contamination in laxatives may cause ‘life-threatening’ infection.”

But it still beats NBC TV’s Florida website that day, which aired this story long before COVID: “Cop kills dog in Miami-Dade after barking complaint.”

It’s hard to invent such things. Meanwhile, in La Presse on the same day, the top six stories were about COVID.

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By any measure, life in Florida seems surreal, as if everyone is wearing blinders and trying not to notice a disease that has killed more than 63,000 Floridians. That’s about twice as many deaths as in all of Canada, in a state that has two-thirds of our country’s population.

It’s madness for health, but there’s a psychological benefit, because COVID doesn’t dominate all of life like here. We Montrealers live in a tense and depressing pandemic bubble – fully COVID, all the time – which is why many people avoid following the news.

In Florida, entire conversations go on without the C-word being mentioned unless you bring it up – which of course I did. I asked a group of seven in their 60s I met on a restaurant patio what they thought of Florida’s non-existent pandemic rules.

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All said they liked the way Florida handles things. In the words of one woman “Our philosophy here is: I take care of myself and you take care of yourself. If you want to wear a mask indoors, you should. If you don’t want to go to a restaurant, you shouldn’t.

When I asked about our collective responsibility to protect others, she shrugged and said, “That’s just not what we think here.”

I mentioned the recent curfew in Quebec, but they all just laughed, dismissing it as “Canadian Communism”. Many others obviously agree because more people have moved to Florida during the pandemic than to any other state.

Thousands of Quebecers have also considered settling there since the pandemic.

It’s a story of two worlds. Like most Canadians, I always believe that collective security trumps certain individual rights. But I would prefer something between the cowboy individualism of Florida and the authoritarian paternalistic rules of Quebec during this fifth wave.

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Our curfew has been lifted, but we still cannot legally invite anyone to our home, while other Western countries and Canadian provinces allow five to 20 guests.

Britain, France, Spain and other European countries begin to “live with Omicron” like the seasonal flu, and abandon many emergency measures. Ontario plans to do the same. When, if ever, Quebec?

To get home, we needed a COVID PCR test, almost impossible to find in Montreal, with hour-long queues at most hospitals. Therefore, the Quebec government will not allow anyone other than very sick people to take them, while travelers have to go to private clinics and pay maybe $200.

Meanwhile, every pharmacy in Florida is running free PCR tests, even for traveling strangers. That seems odd in a country without universal health insurance, where people are often ruined by medical bills.

But when we went for our free test at a pharmacy, there were about ten people waiting, all wearing masks, the only place I had seen that all week.

For the first time, we felt a bit like home.

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  1. To read more of Josh Freed’s columns, click here:

  2. It can still be quite difficult to recognize masked faces during a Quebec winter, when our toques also hide our hair, writes Josh Freed.

    Josh Freed: Sorry, I didn’t recognize you without your mask

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