The politics of the pandemic in the ‘Free State of Florida’

Floridians; health has become the top political issue in the state

File photo (Nam Y. Huh, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – No mask mandates in classrooms. No vaccination “passports.” And no more business shutdowns.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ management of COVID-19 has boosted his countrywide cachet among fellow Republicans as he seeks re-election to the governor’s mansion next year and mulls a run for president in 2024.

But the governor’s insistence on staying the course amid a skyrocketing number of infections -- as of Monday, Florida had the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the nation -- is drawing fire as Democrats and many medical professionals who point the finger at the Republican incumbent whose campaign has called this “the Tree State of Florida.”

Two Democrats who have already filed to run against Gov. Ron DeSantis next year have been relentlessly hitting him on his handling of the pandemic. On Wednesday, both Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a congressman, both tweeted criticisms about DeSantis.

Floridians; health has become the top political issue in the state

“We stand in unity with our local school boards who have the constitutional power to protect our children and won’t be bullied or defunded by our wannabe authoritarian governor,” wrote Fried in one tweet.

“The truth is if the DeSantis had done his job right from Day 1, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” tweeted Crist.

Dr. Sergio Segarra, medical director of Baptist Health in Miami, said it was “a big mistake” for the state to prohibit local communities from issuing mask mandates.

“We said the vaccinated could stop wearing their masks and the unvaccinated stopped wearing their masks, too,’’ Segarra said. People have been more lax and now is the time not to be lax.”

The current state of the pandemic has put Desantis in a difficult political position because, days before school is slated to open, some school districts are considering defying his order prohibiting mask mandates for children. That includes Alachua County, where the school board passed a mask mandate Tuesday night.

Districts like Duval have stopped short of a mandate but are requiring masks unless parents sign an opt-out. Desantis’ office sent to News4jax this response: We are finalizing health and education emergency rules this week that do not prohibit masks in schools but will require parents to have the right to opt their children out. School districts will be expected to allow parents to make this choice.

If a district fully rejects Desantis’ order and institutes a mask mandate, the governor has said he will withhold funding.

But News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney said that’s politically risky.

“It’s going to draw a lot of attention to the state of Florida and what’s going on in Florida, and it will be a direct clash between the public policy of Ron Desantis and the public policies of those school boards,” Mullaney said. “He is at odds with the CDC. He is at odds with school boards around the state. He’s clearly at odds with the media and a growing number of people are having concerns about his policies. So in the weeks and months ahead, he has to hope this surge does not continue.”

DeSantis, however, isn’t backing down from his largely laissez-faire approach, even as the highly transmissible delta variant of the novel coronavirus tears through the Sunshine State.

“We are not shutting down,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday. “We are going to have schools open. We are protecting every Floridian’s job in this state. We are protecting people’s small businesses. These interventions have failed time and time again throughout this pandemic, not just in the United States but abroad. They have not stopped the spread, particularly with delta.”

DeSantis has made Anthony Fauci, a widely respected infectious-disease expert who has been part of the White House’s COVID-19 advisory team, a frequent object of scorn. The governor’s political committee, for example, is capitalizing on Republicans’ animosity toward the veteran public-health official through the sales of merchandise emblazoned with messages such as “Don’t Fauci My Florida.”

DeSantis’ wrath isn’t limited to the doctor, however. The governor has adopted a similarly combative stance with the CDC -- he sued the federal agency for refusing to lift restrictions on cruises -- and President Joe Biden’s administration.

But with Florida and Texas responsible for a third of the COVID-19 cases in the U.S. last week, the White House is punching back. Biden on Tuesday blamed DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for “bad health policy” amid the spikes in the two states.

“I say to these governors, please help,” Biden said. “If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

DeSantis fired back Wednesday at a news conference in Panama City, promising to stand in the way of “lockdown policies” and accused Biden of trying to restrict the rights of parents and children in Florida.

“If you’re trying to deny kids a proper in-person education, I’m going to stand in your way and I’m going to stand up for the kids in Florida. If you’re trying to restrict people, impose mandates, if you’re trying to ruin their jobs and their livelihoods and their small business, if you are trying to lock people down, I am standing in your way and I’m standing for the people of Florida,” DeSantis said.

Critics accuse DeSantis of pandering to GOP base voters -- who turn out in large numbers for primaries -- on issues such as face masks and his reliance on scientists and data considered to be outliers in the medical community.

DeSantis has advocated for the use of vaccines but, unlike some other GOP governors in states experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, has not pushed Floridians to get the shots. Roughly half of eligible Floridians are not fully vaccinated.

With most recent polls showing DeSantis the frontrunner in the governor’s race, the Republican leader “feels strongly that he’s going to win re-election” and is “looking to the next game, which is clearly the presidential game,” political consultant Steve Vancore, who advises Democrats, said in an interview.

“You’ve got to be the most conservative, the most pro-Trump Republican of the field, and as such, he seems to be sticking to a script that is custom-tailored for his far-right base. There’s no part of Ron DeSantis that’s playing to the middle. He’s playing to the base at every step of the way,” Vancore said.

COVID-19 health-care protocols are being “used as a political pawn because our governor and others have found that it’s a political tool, while Floridians are dying or getting sick and people all over the country are,” U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat who is trying to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, said in an interview.

“Why can’t we just listen, our governor and others, be led by the science, be led by information coming from medical experts, follow their guidelines?” she said. “I really wish this issue would not be politicized, but it has been from the very beginning.”

About the Authors:

Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.

Senior reporter, News Service of Florida