Threatens Florida as Covid Numbers Spike
As the governor jets around the country promising to lead the fight against public health mandates, Florida sees record levels of infection.
By John Nichols
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Florida reported a jaw-dropping 21,683 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began. The new figure is 10 percent higher than for the previous worst day, January 7, 2021, which occurred at the peak of last winter’s devastating surge.
On Sunday, the data was even more chilling. Florida broke the previous one-day record for hospitalizations. The old record was set on July 23, 2020, during a surge that occurred months before people began to get vaccinations for the virus. While those who have been vaccinated are generally protected against severe illness, less than 50 percent of Floridians are fully inoculated, and some regions of the state are seeing high levels of vaccine hesitancy—along with outright rejection of public health mandates.
On Monday, headlines announced that Florida was leading the nation in per capita Covid-19 hospitalizations, with the Associated Press reporting that hospitals around the state were “having to put emergency room visitors in beds in hallways and others document a noticeable drop in the age of patients.” Indeed, noted Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, the state now has the highest per capita rate in the nation for pediatric hospitalizations.
This is a crisis.
Yet Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is refusing to act to protect the health and safety of Floridians. Over the weekend, the Orlando Sentinel revealed that DeSantis has stopped traveling around the state to push for people to get vaccinated. “Despite surge in cases,” the front-page headline announced, “governor is no longer encouraging inoculation.” The governor is also aggressively opposing mask mandates and other public-health interventions.
US Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from South Florida, says Floridians are going through “death by DeSantis.”
DeSantis is not changing course, however. Instead, he is peddling explanations for his inaction that defy even his own twisted logic.
For instance, DeSantis has blamed the current spike in Covid cases on hot weather. Because summer temperatures are high in the sunshine State, the governor claims, Floridians are spending too much time in air-conditioned buildings where the disease spreads more easily—rather than getting outside in the fresh air.
At the same time, DeSantis is pushing for public school students to return to their classrooms in, um, air-conditioned buildings. And he’s promising to block any formal attempt to have them wear masks in those buildings—going so far as to say that he would defund districts that try to require masking.
Don’t be. DeSantis is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination—if his mentor and ally Donald Trump lets him. And if Trump decides that he wants to inflict himself on the nation again, DeSantis wants to join the GOP ticket as the vice presidential nominee.
To do this, DeSantis thinks he must be in tune with the science-bashing Republican Party that has emerged during the pandemic—the party of mask-burning Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, of vaccine-rejecting Senator Ron Johnson (R-Conspiracy Theory), and of House minority leader Kevin McCarty with his claim that public-health mandates are “conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.” The Floridian will face serious competition for that the anti-science title, even if Trump stands down. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is constantly picking fights with Dr. Anthony Fauci and the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is going on Fox News to announce, “There should be no mandates. No vaccine mandates, and no mask mandates.” And North Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, an all-but-announced 2024 contender, is mocking CDC warnings on Twitter and intimating that governors who act to stop the spread of the Delta variant could be sued for overstepping their authority.
But DeSantis is not going to be outdone when it comes to preventing public health officials from responding effectively to the virus.
“It is very important that we say unequivocally ‘no’ to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates,” DeSantis declared last week. He made that announcement not in Florida, where spiking virus counts have inspired calls for action, but in Salt Lake City, where he traveled to deliver the keynote address at the summer conference of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. The ALEC conference is an important stop for Republican presidential prospects, even if they are neglecting crises in their home states.
But its not the only out-of-state destination on DeSantis’s summer schedule. The governor has spent so much time out of state that a recent Orlando Sentinel editorial pleaded, “We’re begging you, Governor DeSantis, stop messing in Texas and save Florida from Covid.”
Allen Ellison, a former congressional candidate who is bidding for his party’s 2022 US Senate nomination, says of DeSantis, “His plan is to pander for votes and let Floridians die.”
Frustrated that DeSantis’s presidential ambitions appear to preclude him from doing his job, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has taken matters into her own hands. She has begun providing daily video briefings on the Covid crisis in the state. “We have to do this together,” Fried declared on Monday. “That means vaccinating. That means masking up. That means social distancing where you can.”
Fried, a Democrat who hopes to challenge DeSantis for governor in 2022, has even cut a TV commercial directed at conservatives who are unvaccinated. “You won’t hear this on Fox News from Gov. DeSantis, but you need to,” Fried says in the ad that’s begun airing on the Fox News Channel. “Sean Hannity and Steve Doocy and your family doctor all agree. Vaccines will save your life, your job and our economy. Even Donald Trump recommends getting vaccinated. Think about it. The greatest generation had to beat the Nazis to preserve our way of life. You’re only asked to get a shot! So be a patriot, turn off the TV, and go get vaccinated.”
John NicholsJohn Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and the author of the new book The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace’s Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics (Verso). He’s also the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books, and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.