For months, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) has governed his state as if COVID did not exist. But he didn't just ignore the problem. DeSantis acted to prevent others in his state — local governments, schools, businesses — from taking steps to slow the spread of the deadly virus. He mocked public health officials and catered to anti-vaxxers.
This reckless approach was lionized in the media. DeSantis was heralded as a savvy political operator with the inside track to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
In March 2021, just four months ago, Politico published an article detailing "How Ron DeSantis won the pandemic." It claimed that DeSantis' "most controversial policies" were "the opposite of ruinous." As a result, DeSantis "is more politically ascendant than any governor in the country." A lengthy companion piece in Politico Magazine begins simply: "He was right."
Politico was not alone. The same month, CNN's Chief National Affairs Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, wrote a piece glorifying DeSantis. This is how it began:
After a year of criticism by health experts, mockery from comedians and blistering critiques from political rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is standing unabashedly tall among the nation's governors on the front lines of the coronavirus fight.
A Wall Street Journal column, broadcast by prominent members of the media, said DeSantis was "vindicated."
On HBO, Bill Maher praised DeSantis' approach to COVID and described him as a "voracious reader of the scientific literature." Axios promoted a similar narrative.
DeSantis was also not shy about tooting his own horn. In his March 2021 speech to opening the Florida legislature, he blasted his counterparts who have taken a more cautious approach to the pandemic. "I see, in many parts of our country, a sad state of affairs: schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed. While so many other states kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up,” DeSantis said.
In the months that followed, DeSantis has taken an even more aggressive approach, openly mocking the advice of public health experts. In July, DeSantis' political committee began selling beer koozies and t-shirts with the slogan, "Don't Fauci My Florida."
DeSantis has also attacked Fauci in fundraising emails and on Fox News.
Now, as the Delta variant spreads, DeSantis' bravado has collided with reality. On Saturday, Florida recorded a record 21,683 coronavirus cases, a 12.1% increase over the previous record set on January 7. Florida has "about 6.5% of the U.S. population" but "accounts for about 21.4% of the country’s new cases."
More than 110,000 cases have been reported over the last week and that is likely a vast undercount. The state's positivity rate stands at 18.1%.
The state also reported 108 deaths on Saturday. On Sunday, "Florida broke its year-old record for COVID hospitalizations," topping las July's peak. 10,207 Floridians are currently hospitalized with COVID. One of the state's largest hospital networks "advised it would no longer be conducting non-emergency surgeries in order to free up resources for COVID-19 patients." Florida now has "the highest per capita rate of both hospitalizations and infections in the nation."
In response, DeSantis continues to take actions that could make a dire situation even worse.
DeSantis invalidates all COVID restrictions
On May 3, there was still considerable community spread of COVID-19 in Florida. The state was averaging about 5,000 cases per day. Nevertheless, DeSantis took aggressive action to limit the ability of localities and private businesses to slow the spread.
First, DeSantis signed an executive order invaliding all local rules designed to reduce transmission of the coronavirus.
In order to protect the rights and liberties of individuals in this State and to accelerate the State's recovery from the COVID-19 emergency, any emergency order issued by a political subdivision due to the COVID-19 emergency which restricts the rights or liberties of individuals or their businesses is invalidated.
DeSantis also strictly limited the ability of localities to reimpose restrictions in response to worsening conditions. Some counties have begun to defy DeSantis as conditions worsen.
DeSantis bans businesses from requiring proof of vaccination
The same day, DeSantis signed a bill that "bars businesses, schools and government entities across Florida from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination." Businesses that violated the ban would be subject to a $5,000 fine for each infraction.
DeSantis frames these actions as in the interest of the business community. But the law drew pointed criticism from the cruise ship industry, which features "populations the size of small cities packed into close quarters." In July, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings sued the state for the right to operate cruises starting in August requiring crew and passengers to be vaccinated. "We believe Florida’s prohibition is on the wrong side of federal law, public health, science and is not in the best interest of the welfare of our guests, crew, and the communities we visit, therefore, we have reluctantly turned to the courts for relief," the company said in a statement.
DeSantis' efforts to prevent businesses from requiring vaccinations made little sense from an economic or public health perspective. But it was a nod to DeSantis' political base in Florida and around the country, many of whom are unvaccinated.
DeSantis bans mask mandates in schools
DeSantis has taken the same approach as coronavirus cases spike to record levels. Schools are set to open in Florida in a few days and DeSantis just signed a new executive order that will make mask-wearing optional in all Florida schools. The order directly contradicts CDC guidance.
The order includes dubious claims about the dangers of children wearing masks, asserting without evidence that "forcing children to wear masks could inhibit breathing [and] lead to the collection of dangerous impurities including bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other contaminants."
"In Florida, there will be no lockdowns, there will be no school closures, there will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida," DeSantis said in a speech announcing the new policy.
More than 21,000 coronavirus cases last week occurred in children younger than 19. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. DeSantis' order allows the state "to withhold funds to school boards that impose mask mandates in violation of the new rules."
Two days earlier, Broward County had passed a mask mandate for its schools. A school board member called DeSantis' order "irresponsible" but said the county had no choice but to change its policy.
DeSantis has "warned lawmakers that he would call them back to Tallahassee for a special legislative session to block the Biden administration if it institutes a nationwide mask mandate for students."
The long view
Florida is the current epicenter of the pandemic, but that hasn't always been the case. Many Governors, including New York's Andrew Cuomo (D), have made costly mistakes. But the idea that, over the course of the pandemic, Florida has done better than most states is not true.
Adjusted for population, Florida has the 9th-most confirmed COVID-19 cases of any state. In per capita deaths, Florida now ranks exactly in the middle of the pack, with 182 deaths per 100,000 residents. The aggregate numbers are stark. Florida has had over 2.5 million confirmed cases and 39,000 deaths.
In other words, Florida is not a success story. But DeSantis is committed to his approach as a political strategy. A fundraising email DeSantis sent on Saturday included this conspiratorial rant:
These politicians and government bureaucrats got a taste of power before, and now they’re hungry for more. These lockdown politicians are globalists who refuse to hold China accountable. They want to control you, and if we don’t stand strong now, who knows what they’ll try to take away next.
With the Delta variant ravaging the state and DeSantis dug in, the situation in Florida may get even worse.