About that eternal lockdown: The principle of “Hanlon’s Razor” holds that we shouldn’t credit malice for actions that can be explained by stupidity, but in Florida, in 2020, sometimes it was tough to tell the difference. As other countries and even states worked together to flatten their disease curve and return to something approaching normality, those of us in Orlando who scrupulously observed COVID protocols watched helplessly as those who refused to danced, drank and wedding-partied Florida into a viral cesspit. Malice, stupidity, or a little bit of both? We’ll never know, but in the meantime, our three months of quarantine is stretching out into 13 with no assured end in sight.
But even though it felt like living the movie Groundhog Day, things happened that deserve notice, both commendable and regrettable.
Rep. Val Demings is a manager of the Trump impeachment:
We kicked off 2020 with the hometown-pride-inducing sight of U.S. Rep. Val Demings serving as one of seven managers to physically “transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate.” As an impeachment manager, Demings walked to the Senate chamber to hand over the printed articles and after reading the charges aloud, returned to the House to give a verbal report. “I’ve enforced the laws and now I write the laws,” Demings, who was once Orlando Police Chief, said during the debate before the House impeachment vote. “But the laws mean nothing if the accused can destroy evidence, stop witnesses from testifying and blatantly refuse to cooperate.”
COVID craters the local tourism industry:
Before 2020, conventional wisdom was that, no matter what, theme parks don’t close; 9/11 only interrupted Disney operations for less than a full day, for god’s sake. But the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that notion, shutting down the tourist industry that Orlando’s economy hinges on in March. Theme parks and attractions closed and furloughed scores of workers. Then hotels, restaurants, bars, the convention center, even the airport all followed suit to varying degrees. The ripple effects were heartbreaking, like watching a car wreck in slow motion. In June, Universal and SeaWorld reopened, followed by Disney World in July. But with limited capacity and large events like Halloween Horror Nights off the table, profits nose-dived enough to cause thousands more layoffs. It will be a long road back to where we were at the start of 2020, and things will get worse with Disney and Universal, yes, set to lay off still more employees by the time you read this issue.
Rep. Anna Eskamani vs. Florida’s unemployment system:
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Florida like a damn missile, Central Florida workers were hit particularly hard as the service industry shut down almost completely. Meaningful response from the federal government stalled quickly, so the suddenly unemployed turned to Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity to apply for unemployment benefits … and quickly found themselves ground up in the gears of a shitty, broken website that was designed to frustrate and stymie those looking for assistance. Dreamed up by then-Gov. Rick Scott, the maze-like interface and stingy benefits were features, not bugs — he admittedly wanted to make it difficult to access unemployment funds. One of the few Florida politicians who seemed to be actively listening to, responding to and advocating for her constituents was Orlando Rep. Anna V. Eskamani. This writer can vouch personally for Eskamani and her staff, who were actually fighting for me and trying to get answers and action from a faceless, uncaring bureaucracy. And Eskamani walked it like she talked it, donating her legislative salary to unemployed Floridians and becoming a fierce voice for unemployed Floridians on the national stage. And with the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford area still seeing the highest unemployment rates in the state, we need someone to fight for us.
Orlando’s summer of protest:
Springing from an outpouring of outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers over Memorial Day weekend, Black Lives Matter protests launched all over the United States, and all over the world, fostering a very real sense that this was a systemic breaking point. And Orlando joined in soon enough. For weeks in downtown Orlando — also in Kissimmee, and Sanford, and Winter Park — diverse crowds of hundreds and, a few times, thousands of people marched and rallied and assembled and expressed outrage not just over George Floyd’s murder, but also Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin and so many more. These were actions organized not by a political party but by young adults, most if not all Black, working on a grass-roots level with grass-roots mutual aid resources and organizations. One couldn’t help but be inspired by the energy, the determination, the commitment and the peaceful nature of these gatherings. And, for the naysayers in the back: No, there was no spike in COVID-19 cases from these demonstrations.
Black Lives Matter, says city of Orlando (street):
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Few would claim that Orlando city leaders had anything but the best intentions in mind when they painted the words “Black Lives Matter” in 30-foot letters on the surface of Rosalind Avenue, following the lead of Washington, D.C., and other American cities. But many residents, Black and white alike, questioned the utility of the gesture. Almost before the paint was dry, the horizontal mural was marked up — defaced, in some people’s opinion; legitimately criticized (albeit in spray paint under cover of darkness), felt others — with graffiti saying “Defund OPD” and “Not enough,” among other phrases. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said, “We’re deeply saddened that a symbol of our commitment to ending racial inequality created together with our community was vandalized,” but a significant segment of the city rejected the easy narrative of “mural good, graffiti bad.” Tyla Harrington, a young Black artist and activist, called the mural “meaningless and empty,” adding that legislative protections for Black people from police abuse and reparations to all descendants of American slaves would mean more than any mural ever could.
Mayor Jerry Demings vs. Gov. Ron DeSantis:
As COVID numbers soared and reports came in that some business owners and patrons were reacting with hostility to his coronavirus strike teams, you could see the frustration building in the usually calm face of Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings. But his hands were tied by an executive order that Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed in September preventing local governments from imposing stricter coronavirus-related rules than those already in place statewide. Finally, in early December, Demings issued an executive order of his own, carefully crafted by his legal counsel, that would allow the county to impose fines on businesses that were repeatedly flouting safety guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19. As of this writing, DeSantis has not yet followed through on his threat to “hobble” local leaders who attempt to impose tighter regulations, and Demings is confident about his order standing up to any challenge. “I have not had any communication with the governor’s office regarding this executive order,” said Demings during a press conference announcing the new orders. “I really don’t feel like I have to go to the governor to ask permission to be the mayor of Orange County.”
DeSantis vs. protesters:
Meanwhile, up in Tallahassee, DeSantis brought yet more scorn upon our heads when he proposed the “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act.” Like a terrible sequel to the very bad Stand Your Ground law, DeSantis said he wanted to make it OK for vigilantes to shoot and kill activists and protesters they suspected of “looting” or property damage. He had the chance to address police violence against protesters, like the pepper spray and LRAD deployed against Orlando citizens in the streets, but instead he thought: Let’s crack down on some of these nonviolent actions (assembling without a permit — a First Amendment right! — or blocking roadways) and also massively increase the penalties for some crimes already on the books (vandalism and property destruction). Then he thought, Let’s also waive any liability for drivers who kill or injure protesters with their vehicles. Truly, DeSantis must have a medical condition that makes it legal for him to rip massive bong hits because you’d have to be incredibly messed-up to think this was a good idea in the Year of Our Lord 2020. Reps. Randolph Bracy and Anna Eskamani have rightly called the whole thing out as the political play for “law and order” voters that it is — DeSantis is up for re-election in 2022 — and he’s backpedaled so strenuously that it’s unclear whether the proposal is on the agenda for the March legislative session.
Sports are revived in an Orlando bubble:
One of the strange sidebars of this overall sad story of the pandemic is that Orlando became the epicenter of professional athletics in the United States for a few months. The NBA, MLS and even, yes, WWE all resumed operations in Orlando and against all odds, their respective experiments worked out for the most part. Both the NBA and MLS held a truncated season and a tournament, respectively, inside tightly restricted “bubbles” at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Players lived, practiced and played on-site, isolated from the outside world … and from audiences. (This made for surreal moments like Philadelphia Sixers player Joel Embiid flying into Orlando in July wearing a hazmat suit, and another player apparently suspended for sneaking an Instagram model into the bubble, but the season played out without critical medical incidents.) And WWE turned the Amway Center into “ThunderDome” for SummerSlam, Raw and SmackDown tapings with virtual audiences beamed in. As strange as all of that was, it’s even stranger now to see that audiences are bring gradually allowed back into major sporting events, including Magic games. Hold on tight; this ride isn’t nearly over yet.
Parliament House Resort closes, ending an LGBTQ era:
In what felt like losing a beloved relative, venerable Orlando gay club, theater and resort Parliament House closed the doors of its Orange Blossom Trail location permanently in November, after 40 halcyon years of revelry and liberation. Owners Don Granatstein and Susan Unger weren’t able to secure the cash they needed to stave off foreclosure, and so the landmark was shuttered. Even worse, the current owners of the property plan to raze the buildings. Granatstein and Unger say they plan to relocate, but it’s hard to imagine any place capturing the same spark and stardust the original P-House was imbued with.
The Ocoee Massacre finally gets proper recognition:
After a shockingly, shamefully long time, Orange County finally owned up to its history of racist violence when the History Center mounted a massive exhibition marking the July Perry lynching and the heinous massacre of Black landowners that started on Election Day in 1920, when two Black men went to the Ocoee polls to vote. Not only were they chased down, beaten and shot, the incident sparked a riot among white residents, who took the opportunity to destroy Black-owned property, assault and murder Black citizens, and eventually drive out every Black person living there. A hundred years after that horrifying day, many Orlandoans admitted they had no idea it had ever happened. Every person in Orlando was lessened by living in denial or unwitting ignorance of their history — not to mention the significant fact that the stolen land that would have been the basis of Black generational wealth instead went to white families. While Florida perpetrated its own version of Black voter disenfranchisement in 2020 with their mangled rendition of Amendment 4, at least 2020 was the year eyes started to open.