With coronavirus cases climbing in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has dodged mounting pressure to pause the state’s reopening, a position that reflects both the Republican leader’s past defiance in the face of the pandemic and his political positioning.
DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus was once heralded, despite the fact that he closed the state later than most and opened it up earlier than others, drawing scorn from state and national leaders. But after Florida seemingly avoided the worst of the virus, new cases in the state have skyrocketed, with the Florida Department of Health reporting nearly 9,000 new cases on Friday, a figure that dwarfed the state’s previous one-day coronavirus case record and showed the number of new cases more than tripling in just two weeks.
The turn – from coronavirus success story to burgeoning problem state – is the latest chapter in DeSantis’ ongoing fight with the health crisis and puts the governor in a tricky position: His defiance early in the coronavirus fight, in addition to his deference to President Donald Trump – who has denied the worsening situation surrounding the outbreak – makes it difficult for the governor to reverse course.
“What have the results been?” DeSantis, sitting next to Trump, said in late April. “Everyone in the media was saying Florida would be like New York or Italy and that has not happened. … We had a tailored and measured approach that not only helped our numbers be way below what anybody predicted, but also did less damage to our state going forward.”
The response earned plaudits from Trump, who said DeSantis was a “great governor” who “knows exactly what he’s doing” to combat the coronavirus.
But that initial political position, in the eyes of Republicans in Florida, has now backed the governor into a corner.
“The problem with the way he reacted was he was declaring victory before the game was over,” said a top Republican operative in the state who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the governor’s position. “He kind of backed himself into a corner now.”
Democrats, too, have used the uptick in cases in Florida to slam both DeSantis and his ties to Trump.
“The governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, is a disciple of this president,” said Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County. “The governor is going to follow the lead of the White House. … Lives are at risk, and you have all these political games going on.”
And the fears are most heady in South Florida, where Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said that “all options are on the table” when asked about whether the city will impose another stay-at-home order.
“When we see the hospitalization goes up, our ICU beds go up, our ventilators are going up … it’s worrisome and there are some hospitals in Dade County that are getting close to capacity,” Suarez, a Republican, told CNN.
DeSantis, in response to the uptick, has been steadfast in rejecting calls to rethink the state’s reopening, telling reporters on Wednesday that people have “responded very positively to the steps so far, so we want to continue on that journey.”
“If you follow guidelines, everything works out fine,” DeSantis said Wednesday.
But on Thursday, it appeared clear that DeSantis was aware his state was going in the wrong direction.
“We are where we are,” the governor said. “I didn’t say we’re going to go on to the next phase,”
DeSantis has blamed the burst in cases on young people, noting that the median age of people who have recently tested positive is in the mid- to upper-30s, and the fact that the state’s testing is going up. In response, DeSantis has threatened to use the state government to stringently crack down on bars and nightclubs where social distancing is not being observed, threatening to even take away liquor licenses.
And the governor has also said the spike on “agricultural communities” that are made up of “overwhelming Hispanic” day laborers, a comment that earned his swift condemnation from a host lawmakers and outside political groups.
But across the Gulf of Mexico, another Republican governor – Greg Abbott of Texas – has taken a different tack, issuing an executive order that limits certain business and services in response to a spike this week.
“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said Thursday. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”
In some ways, though, there is more on the line for DeSantis, who is much closer with Trump than the Texas Republican and hails from a state where tourism is a much more significant portion of the economy.
Additionally, DeSantis, after significant lobbying, convinced Trump to accept the Republican presidential nomination in Jacksonville, after the President fought with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, for being unwilling to guarantee the party would be allowed to hold a full-fledged convention in Charlotte. Cases in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, have jumped in recent days.
The central question for DeSantis as Florida’s numbers increase is whether to implement a statewide mask requirement. The governor so far has resisted those calls – including one pushed by top Democrats in the state – but he also has slightly adapted his personal style, donning a mask for public appearances as he urges the citizens of his state to do the same when they are out.
It’s a notable change for the governor, who had not been as steadfast about wearing a mask and declined to wear one when he joined Vice President Mike Pence in May.
So far, neither one of the Florida’s Republican senators are prepared to break with DeSantis and ask for a mandatory statewide mask requirement.
“I just think people ought to be able to make those decisions themselves,” Florida Sen. Rick Scott said in response to CNN’s Manu Raju’s question on Thursday.
And while Marco Rubio has defiantly told people to wear a mask – “everyone should just wear a damn mask,” he said on Wednesday – the Florida senator did not say he wanted the state to have a mandatory order.
DeSantis is now living with the initial steps he took to combat the coronavirus, especially his decision to require all travelers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to quarantine for two weeks upon arriving in Florida.
With the tri-state area now recovering from its worst, the Democratic governors of the three states are directing their ire on Florida and its worsening fight by requiring people traveling in from the state to quarantine.
“I say to them all, look at the numbers,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told CNN when asked what he would say to DeSantis. “You played politics with this virus and you lost.”