Trump never did this, right? It wouldn’t have been in keeping with his “reopen everything ASAP” approach to the pandemic. The closest he got that I can recall was in the earliest days of COVID last March, when most of the country was seeing relatively low caseloads but New York City was blowing up. At that moment the virus could still semi-plausibly be framed by Republicans as a “blue-state problem,” in which case why not seal off the blue states where the problem was raging? Trump’s former pandemic advisor, Tom Bossert, explicitly called for a cordon sanitaire of NYC at the time, in fact:

Trump said three days later that he was considering a mass quarantine of the northeast to prevent the virus’s spread but he never did pull the trigger on it and it’s unclear whether he’d have had the constitutional authority to do so. Maybe the feds’ power over interstate commerce would have given the president authority to restrict traffic on interstate highways, or maybe the “right to travel” that’s been recognized in U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence would have prohibited an out-and-out travel ban. In any case, we never got a chance to find out.

But maybe we will soon?

The Biden administration is considering whether to impose domestic travel restrictions, including on Florida, fearful that coronavirus mutations are threatening to reverse hard-fought progress on the pandemic…

Discussions in the administration over potential travel restrictions do not target a specific state but focus on how to prevent the spread of variants that appear to be surging in a number of states, including Florida and California…

Two federal government officials underscored that no policy announcements are imminent, and that any move to restrict travel or impose new health measures would be taken in partnership with state and local governments.

“In a pandemic, if any state fails, all states fail,” [law professor Polly] Price said. “I do think the authority is there for imposing some kind of federal domestic travel restrictions based on whether one state threatens to spread contagious disease into another state,” such as enforcing a nationwide quarantine period for travelers coming from states where a certain percentage of the population is testing positive for variants.

Sounds … nebulous. It’s not clear to me what restrictions would look like that “do not target a specific state,” unless it means that the feds would set some sort of neutral benchmark and any state that just so happens to meet that benchmark automatically gets cordoned off from the rest of the country. For example, “interstate travel is restricted to any state in which more than 10 percent of new daily COVID cases can be traced to the B.1.1.7, a.k.a. British, variant of the virus.” If that were the rule, Florida would be cordoned off immediately: According to McClatchy, one recent model estimates that some 15 percent of Florida’s cases now involve B.1.1.7.

It’s the biggest hotspot for the British strain of the virus in the U.S.:

Over one-third of all U.S. cases of the British variant identified so far have been found in Florida, according to McClatchy. The good news is that Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines (as well as natural immunity gained from overcoming common COVID) appear to be just as effective against the British variant as they are against the more familiar version of the virus. The bad news is that B.1.1.7 is so highly contagious that it’s destined to spread much more quickly than we can keep pace by vaccinating. Just 10 percent of Floridians have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far; meanwhile, the British virus is expected to be the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 across the U.S. as soon as next month. We just can’t stop it in the near term through vaccinations alone, which is why the CDC is suddenly warning people to start double-masking and why Team Biden is pushing its estimate of when we’ll reach herd immunity out towards winter.

It’s going to spread like wildfire over the next few months while the slow progress of vaccinations continues, which means the only way to limit the spread right now is through the familiar non-pharmaceutical interventions of social distancing and masking. The problem with that in Florida is that Ron DeSantis has prided himself on keeping schools and businesses in his state open, and because it’s now a Democratic administration leaning on him to reconsider, he has partisan incentives as a potential 2024 contender to say no. The leak from the White House about possible travel restrictions may be nothing more than a way of calling public attention to the fact that Florida does pose a special problem at the moment because of the spread of B.1.1.7 there and that Americans should be unhappy that DeSantis isn’t doing more to try to contain it.

Of course, DeSantis is only too happy to tell Team Joe to screw off, both for economic and political reasons:

“I think it’s an absurd report that they would be doing that, I think it would be unconstitutional, it would be unwise and it would be unjust,” DeSantis said. “Any attempt to restrict or lock down Florida by the federal government would be an attack on our state done purely for political purposes.”…

“If you think about it, restricting the right of Americans to travel freely throughout our country while allowing illegal aliens to pour across the southern border unmolested would be a ridiculous but very damaging farce,” DeSantis said. “So we will oppose it 100%. It would not be based in science, it would purely be a political attack against the people of Florida.”

It wouldn’t be done “purely for political purposes” — there really is a super-contagious version of the virus spreading in Florida that pushed cases in the UK last month to ludicrous per capita levels — but that’s a good message for a Republican governor in a Republican state eyeing a Republican presidential future to have. Another Florida Republican with the presidency on his mind felt the same way:

“Instituting a travel ban, or any restriction of movement between the states, would be an outrageous, authoritarian move that has no basis in law or science. Instead, it would only serve to inflict severe and devastating economic pain on an already damaged economy,” [Marco] Rubio wrote Biden Wednesday, responding to a Miami Herald report that restrictions were being considered as a result of B.1.1.7 and other variants surging in the state…

“While we are all concerned that the pandemic continues to take a toll on our friends, family and communities, forbidding Americans from traveling across state lines will not force any strain of COVID-19 to cease. It would instead starve Florida’s businesses of much needed tourism dollars, keep family and friends apart, and set an unprecedented use of power on the American people,” the Senator contended.

There’s no way Biden will follow through on some sort of travel ban. Florida is now a consistently red state but I wouldn’t call it “reliably” red yet. Trump beat Biden there by three points and Rick Scott and DeSantis won their races in 2018 by less than one percent. It’s trending Republican but it’s not Ohio. If a Democratic administration crushed the state’s economy via heavy-handed pandemic containment while Republican statewide leaders took to voicing the public’s outrage, Dems might be finished in Florida’s major races for a decade. Georgians wouldn’t like it either, since they do plenty of cross-border business with their neighbor. Democrats want to lock down their gains there in 2022 by making Stacey Abrams governor and Raphael Warnock senator for a full term. If Biden slaps a travel ban on Florida, the economic fallout in GA should easily be enough to erase his 12,000-vote advantage over Trump in November.

I think the “travel ban” talk is really just the White House’s way of nudging the media to start paying attention to the magnitude of the potential problem in Florida. The British variant will spread quickly nationally whether or not Florida is sealed off, but when it does, Team Joe wants reporters pointing their fingers at DeSantis and the Republican leadership in FL for mismanaging the problem. Which is something the press has been only too eager to do.

Here’s DeSantis fending off media complaints about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory parade by tu-quoquing them with a reminder that they never seem to have a problem with mass gatherings for woke causes like Black Lives Matter protests. Totally true, but that amounts to arguing that two wrongs make a right. And again, while he’s right that the vaccines should work against B.1.1.7, there’s just no way to get enough people vaccinated to stop the variant before it ignites. We’re out of time.

Update: A pithy summary of why there’ll be no travel ban on Florida.