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At some point in the not-too-distant future, America’s governors will be judged at the ballot box for their response to a pandemic that the Trump administration forced them to handle mostly on their own. In some cases, that judgment will be rendered in 2022, when they stand for reelection. Others will try to tout their COVID-19 résumés in an upcoming presidential contest.
According to a new Politico profile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is already positioning himself as one of these post-pandemic White House hopefuls. The gist of the story is that while DeSantis, just 42 years old and still in his first term, formerly “drew national scorn for his stewardship of Florida’s Covid-19 response,” his “resistance to restrictive measures” like mask mandates and the blowback he got for being “divorced from science” has now “strengthened” his standing “among the GOP grassroots and elites heading into his 2022 reelection” — and even inspired “conservative chatter nationwide about a presidential bid.”
“Covid wars launch DeSantis into GOP ‘top tier,’” the Politico headline declares.
Politics and public health are, of course, two very different things. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that the 81 percent of Republicans who continue to approve of Donald Trump will eventually reward DeSantis for owning the libs on COVID. But while dissing a reporter with the line “you can whiz on my leg but don’t tell me it’s raining” is sure to act “like a shot of adrenaline to the conservative grassroots,” as one GOP strategist gushed to Politico, it’s not going to protect anyone from getting sick or dying from COVID.
So how does DeSantis’s actual record stack up?
It’s an important question not just for DeSantis but for every governor with ambitions in the years ahead — people like California’s Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo of New York, both of whom have received mixed marks for their leadership.
The truth is, a governor can control only so much about a virus that doesn’t respect state borders and spreads more because of how individuals choose to behave than anything else. Weather, demographics and emerging variants are also factors — none of which even the most powerful executive can change. But a governor can help or hurt the situation by pulling various levers and sending various messages. When and what to reopen, and at what capacity? How to encourage (or, as the case may be, discourage) masking? How to prioritize vaccine doses? And what about schools?
A dispassionate look at the data suggests that, under DeSantis, Florida’s response has been middling. Overall, the Sunshine State ranks third nationwide in total number of cases, with more than 1.8 million, and fourth in total number of deaths, with nearly 30,000. On a per capita basis, Florida’s rankings on those two measures aren’t nearly as dire — 29th and 27th, respectively — but they aren’t stellar, either.
And unlike many states with more COVID-19 deaths per capita — states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Louisiana — Florida wasn’t caught flat-footed in the first wave last spring. Instead, the death rate in DeSantis’s state has risen over time, even as experts have learned more about keeping people safe.
A comparison with liberal California — a rival warm-weather, high-population state that DeSantis and other conservatives love to mock — is instructive. To date, Florida has logged only slightly fewer cases per capita than California, despite the fact that the Golden State has been testing at a much higher rate and recently endured the nation’s worst holiday surge, which was almost certainly amplified by a more transmissible homegrown strain of the virus.
The overall death rate in Florida (137 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents) is actually higher than it is in California (122). The number of daily deaths in Florida has held steady at a record-high level for the past month; the corresponding number in California has declined by more than 35 percent. And even though about 14 percent of COVID-19 tests in each state were coming back positive a month ago, today Florida’s positivity rate (about 7 percent) seems to have plateaued at a level about twice as high as California’s, which is at 3.5 percent and falling.
DeSantis and his defenders would counter that sustaining a somewhat higher rate of COVID-19 death and transmission than California is a reasonable trade-off for keeping businesses and schools relatively open. Another caveat: More than 20 percent of Floridians are over 65, versus just 14 percent of Californians.
“There’s a whole bunch of things we’ve been doing for COVID, but at the same time, we’ve lifted our state up, we’ve saved our economy, and I think we’re going to be first out of gate once we are able to put COVID behind the country,” DeSantis told Fox Business Sunday. “People view Florida as the place where they can follow their dreams. … It is a free state.”
DeSantis can claim some successes on this front. In December, Florida’s unemployment rate fell 0.2 percent to 6.1 percent, even as California’s rose 0.9 percent to 9.0 percent. DeSantis fully reopened bars and restaurants last September and refused to let local officials limit capacity during December’s holiday surge, despite weekly reports from the Trump COVID-19 task force — which DeSantis refused to release — urging the state to mandate masks and restrict indoor drinking and dining. In contrast, indoor dining and drinking remain off-limits in California today.
“If a local leader wants to put [restaurant and bar employees] out of work, you’re damn right I’m hobbling them from doing that,” DeSantis said at the time. “If they want to shut down businesses, I’m going to stand in the way.”
Likewise, Florida is one of just four states that have ordered all school districts and charter boards to keep brick-and-mortar schools open five days a week; in California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is still trying to strike a deal with the all-powerful teachers' unions to resume in-person schooling for younger students. And because Florida started vaccinating seniors before California, it has a slight edge (5.7 percent vs. 4.0 percent) in the share of residents who’ve received their second shot. (The share who’ve received at least one shot is the same, at 12 percent.)
With cases and hospitalizations falling in every state following America’s holiday surge, DeSantis has seized on such numbers to claim that he’s hit on a superior approach to COVID-19 — one that strikes a better balance between shielding the vulnerable and maintaining at least some semblance of normalcy than what scientists and Democrats are advocating. If he has to conduct a maskless conversation in a Super Bowl skybox while doing it, then so be it. “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on? Come on,” DeSantis joked to Politico. “I had to watch the Bucs win.”
“The national media and all these people who are self-anointed ‘experts’ ... they all said Florida would be the worst,” DeSantis continued. “What we showed in Florida is you need to lead. I got a lot of blowback. A lot of that was BS, quite frankly. We led on schools. We led on putting people back to work. We would not have had a Super Bowl [in Tampa] if it was not for me.”
Yet of all people, DeSantis should know it’s unwise to claim victory before the virus has run its course; with COVID-19, the appearance of a successful or unsuccessful response is largely contingent on the severity of the pandemic at any given point. After Florida rushed to reopen in early May, for instance, cases started to climb; by mid-July it was considered one of the worst-hit places in the world, with an average of 12,000 new cases per day. January’s peak — nearly 20,000 new daily cases — was even higher. Both times, DeSantis’s approval rating plummeted. It turns out that doing as little as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 gets less popular when COVID-19 is spreading fast.
In this, DeSantis hasn’t so much led as followed the example of Donald Trump, who downplayed the disease and dismissed the experts — then left office after a single term with a 38.6 percent approval rating.
As the weather warms and more Americans get vaccinated, it is entirely possible that the U.S. pandemic will continue on its current downward trajectory. If it does, DeSantis will keep claiming that his less-is-more strategy worked — and while the numbers won’t exactly confirm that claim, they won’t directly contradict it either.
But the virus may not be done with us yet. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that if the worrisome U.K. variant known as B.1.1.7 behaves in the U.S. the way it did in Britain — where it fueled a massive winter wave and was found to be about 50 percent more transmissible than previous versions of the virus — then it will outnumber all other U.S. strains by March. A subsequent study showed that B.1.1.7 is now spreading so rapidly here that it is doubling in prevalence roughly every 10 days.
And where is it spreading most rapidly? The same state that served as ground zero for maskless Super Bowl revelry earlier this month: Florida. So far, scientists have detected twice as many B.1.1.7 cases in Florida than in any other state — a full third of the national total.
The threat of B.1.1.7 is obvious: a fourth wave of COVID-19 in the spring, fueled by a variant that’s even better at exploiting the kind of “freedom” DeSantis is so fond of. Because the most at-risk Americans are getting vaccinated first — seniors, nursing-home residents — mortality rates wouldn’t match their previous peaks. But it’s unlikely Floridians would appreciate yet another surge in infections, especially if it could have been mitigated by a governor who spent more time encouraging mask use and outdoor dining and less time hiding COVID data to align with spin from the Trump White House and threatening to take vaccine doses away from counties that question the equity of his distribution plan.
Eventually, the pandemic will end. Infections will flatline in every state. Every governor will claim victory and vindication. Schools and businesses will fully open. Economies will recover. Something like normal life will resume. The finer points of policy — the squabbles about who vaccinated who first and who kept bars open the longest — will fade. The political playing field will, in effect, be level.
Instead, what will linger in voters’ minds is the deeper impression their leaders made during the crisis. Cuomo’s aggressiveness, but also his deceit. Newsom’s wonkery, but also his hypocrisy. These impressions will, in turn, come to define their larger political brands.
For DeSantis, what will remain is his Trumpiness, for good and for ill — the anti-elite attitude, the eagerness to buck the experts, the polarizing politics, the fast-and-loose approach to facts, the reluctance to lock down even when the pandemic was at its worst.
The MAGA base is likely to love this, regardless of whether Florida’s numbers ultimately strengthen or weaken DeSantis’s case on COVID-19. Whether other voters end up rewarding him for it, however, remains to be seen.
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