TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Covid crisis has wedged Gov. Ron DeSantis between two competing forces: public health experts who urge him to do more and anti-vaxxers who want him to do less.
The Republican governor has come under attack from the medical community and Democrats as the Delta strain of Covid-19 sweeps through Florida, turning it into a national coronavirus hotspot. The state recorded more than 73,000 infections last week — four times as many as the start of July — leading to overcrowded hospitals and more than 300 deaths in the most recent seven-day period. Florida is now home to one in five new cases of Covid-19 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But as DeSantis encourages vaccinations — he said “vaccines are saving lives” — he is facing a backlash from the anti-vaccination wing of his political base. It’s the same group that praised him and helped thrust him onto the national stage for his hands-off approach to the virus. DeSantis, with 2024 presidential ambitions, has to walk the line between keeping his conservative base satisfied and keeping his state from becoming more of a disease hot spot.
“Don’t let political correctness get in the way of health choices,” former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said recently of DeSantis’ comments, speaking on “The Right Side with Doug Billings,” a conservative radio host and podcaster.
Another conservative radio host, Stew Peters, last week called DeSantis a “sellout” and suggested the governor was taking bribes, though didn’t specify from whom.
As infections and hospitalizations surge in Florida, DeSantis has largely encouraged vaccinations while still rejecting restoring any Covid-related lockdowns or mask mandates. He remains one of the most vocal voices pushing for schools to do in-person learning, and successfully pushed to prohibit local governments from instituting pandemic regulations.
It’s a strategy that helped him rise through the GOP ranks nationally and allowed for early claims of success as the pandemic in Florida did not live up to the worst fears of the national experts, despite spring 2020 photos of packed spring break parties in the state and fears of superspreader events. But as Covid infections swell across the state, DeSantis’ major achievement has the potential to backfire on him ahead of his 2022 reelection campaign and potential 2024 presidential bid.
DeSantis’ office brushed off the criticism from conservatives, calling a story reporting on Flynn and Peters’ comments “clickbait.”
“Most conservatives in politics and media do not find the Governor’s statements the least bit controversial and have not made such baseless accusations,” said Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary.
Brian Ballard, a prominent Republican lobbyist and DeSantis supporter, said DeSantis’ conservative credentials are beyond rebuke.
“I saw the Flynn comments and thought they were outrageous,” Ballard said. “If Ron DeSantis is not within the four corners of being a conservative, I don’t know what is.”
“There is so much disinformation that it’s literally crazy and killing people,” he added.
Yet DeSantis’ strategy so far also has the governor running afoul of some local governments and public health officials, who appreciate DeSantis’ pro-vaccination rhetoric but continue to lament what they say is a lack of urgency to tackle the virus.
Officials in Palm Beach on Monday announced that they would require people to wear masks inside city buildings or on town property regardless of vaccination status. This follows California’s move on Monday to soon require state and health care staffers to provide proof that they’ve been vaccinated. DeSantis banned such “vaccine passports” in Florida.
Health officials, meanwhile, are also pressing the governor to provide more assistance to frontline health care workers.
“Our city emergency leaders now have daily meetings with hospitals, and while our city and fellow hospitals are all in tune to the ongoing emergency and working to help each other, we’re not getting the level of support from the state we were previously in the pandemic when the Covid burden was much lower,” said Chad Neilsen, the Infection Prevention Director at University of Florida Health in Jacksonville.
He said the state needs to restart releasing daily Covid-19 testing data, which ended in January, and again declare Florida under a public health emergency, which lapsed on June 26.
“By declaring a [public health emergency], activities can then be authorized to help support essential services and functions in response to the emergency,” Nielsen said. “This may be emergency funds to help pay for staffing, or equipment, activation of certain support offices, and can even open up availability to federal support.”
Pushaw, however, said calls for a renewed public health emergency are misguided.
“People are entitled to their own opinions, but there is an unfortunate tendency among some of the governor’s critics to demand ‘a state of emergency’ on different issues without any indication of what, concretely, they believe such a declaration would accomplish,” she said.