By Hank Tester

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – When it came to the Florida COVID story in 2021, it would be easy to say that COVID economics, politics, and policy discussions far outshined the ongoing medical struggle to save lives and prevent the spread of the disease.

Governor Ron DeSantis held firm with his belief in individual freedom of choice when it came to vaccines and masks.

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“Your right to earn a living should not be contingent upon COVID shots,” DeSantis often said as he continued his fight to keep Floridians employed, opposed mandatory workplace requirements that employees be vaccinated, and mandatory masks for school students.

In late November, the governor called a Special Legislative Session which approved legislation prohibiting employee COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the Sunshine State.

DeSantis signed the measure into law which prevented schools, local governments and businesses from enacting strict vaccine rules for employees or students.  The DeSantis bills also banned school districts from passing mask mandates.

It was a year of the governor sparing with school districts, cruise lines, county governments over mandated vaccinations, and mandatory masks. Prior to the special session, Miami-Dade and Broward school districts opted for optional mask use for students.

Many students were good with it, telling CBS4 they will continue to wear their masks at school.

“I think we are heading in a better direction, you can take ‘em off,” said student Amari Griffin.

Earlier in the summer, COVID spiked in South Florida.   According to the Florida Health Department, the positivity rate for all of Florida was at 18.1 percent. Broward saw a positivity rate of 14 percent, Miami-Dade hit 12.1 percent, and Monroe logged 16.2 percent. Hospitalizations were also nearing their peak.

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Dr. Yvonne Johnson, Chief Medical Officer at Baptist South Miami Hospital, told CBS4, “Eighty to eighty-five percent of those people who are hospitalized are unvaccinated, and 100 percent of the people in my IUC are unvaccinated.”

Public officials urged the unvaccinated to get their shots and booster.

As the year wound down hospitalizations dropped. About 13,184,332 eligible Floridians — 61.4 percent of the state’s population — completed the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In Miami-Dade, about 2,116,458 people, or 77.9 percent of the county’s population, are fully vaccinated. In Broward, about 1,272,822 people are fully vaccinated, or 65.2 percent of the county’s population.

While the pandemic is far from over, 2021 had a far different vibe. Florida’s theme parks were open, restaurants were full, bars were hopping, concerts were back, and hotels began to see occupancy that came close to pre-pandemic numbers.

Broward’s tourism chief Stacey Ritter was relieved that tourists were returning.

“There is a great pent-up demand here. People do want to get out,” said Ritter.

Yet amongst the optimism, the advent of “the new normal,” the COVID numbers piled up. Since March of 2020, Florida has recorded well over three and a half million COVID cases and more than 62-thousand deaths. Late in the year, after weeks of declines, COVID cases began to climb and South Florida kept a wary eye on the emerging omicron variant.

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2021 was a year of discovery, how to cope with the new normal, the omicron variant a new threat, but life went on. Floridians were out and about following the governor’s lead.  Florida was open for business.