Gov. DeSantis turns pugnacious, slams ‘misleading narratives’ about COVID-19 in Florida

Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared during a news conference on May 1, 2020, at Little Talbot Island State Park near Jacksonville to highlight his plan to reopen state parks. Screenshot

Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to Little Talbot Island State Park Friday to announce that he will reopen Florida’s state parks Monday as part of his broader loosening of COVID-19 rules, and took the opportunity to bash critics  including the national news media.

Appearing during a news conference with Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and Florida National Guard commander James Eifert, the Republican governor cited the furor that attended the local decision to reopen area beaches on April 18. The hashtag #Floridamorons emerged on Twitter.

The parks reopening will be limited, effective Monday, and not all amenities will be open, the governor’s office said. Parks officials plan to list the reopened parks here. The usual social distancing guidelines will apply.

DeSantis insisted the science justified the beaches reopening, which included social distancing requirements and reduced hours.

“At that time, there was a lot of people — not from Florida, but from between D.C. and New York — who thought that this was just the most significant thing that had every happened. That the sky was going to fall. They did misleading pictures, acting like, you know, this was like Lollapalooza on the beach or something like that,” he said.

“This is what they were focused on. Not dirty subway cars. Not other things that have been major transmitters of this disease. They were really focused on this, and they said that this was going to lead all these negative things. And people here were mocked.

“I want to thank the local media here in Northeast Florida for fighting back against false narratives and actually putting the facts out, actually showing that people were behaving responsibly, and that the major and his compatriots on the beaches, those mayors, were doing a good job.”

DeSantis made a similar point on Twitter feed. “We need to focus on facts and not fear. They said Florida was going to be just like New York or an ‘uber Italy’ when it came to hospitalizations and fatalities. This was wrong. It’s time to focus on the facts and follow a safe, smart and step-by-step plan for recovery.”

Some critics have argued that the state hasn’t tested enough people for the new coronavirus to justify the reopening, but cases actually have declined in Northeast Florida, DeSantis said — positive test results are near 4 percent, hospitals have plenty of capacity for COVID patients, and antibody tests are expected that will help officials learn how widely the pandemic has spread.

“Two weeks ago, [Duval] county reported 29 new cases. Now, out of a county of 1 million people, that is extremely low. That’s like lunchtime in Queens on any given day in terms of what they’re seeing in other parts of the country.”

‘Tale of the tape’

Local leaders “have proved a lot of people wrong throughout this. I just think it’s important to take the tale of the tape. You do things two weeks ago and you try to smear a community and then you just go by. It’s like drive-by media, just do it and then move on.”

DeSantis cited a U.S. Department of Homeland Security study suggesting that sunlight and high temperatures kill the new coronavirus more quickly in aerosols and on surfaces than in closed environments. He did not go as far as President Trump has, to suggest that scientists introduce sunlight within the body to kill virus.

“Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t transmit it. Obviously, if you pack in 1,000 people and they’re right next to each other and they cough on each other, that’s going to be risky,” DeSantis said.

“But when you’re talking about open spaces with appropriate social distancing, that is a very low-risk environment. But it’s also high reward for the people of Florida. Because people can go out, they can get sunlight, they can get fresh air, it’s good for peace of mind when they’re exercising. That’s a good thing,” he said.

“We have a virus that, if you’re under 50 and you don’t have health conditions, fortunately is extremely low risk. The risk comes when people develop underlying conditions. One of those things is things like diabetes and obesity. The fact that people are being out, they’re doing things to increase their health — hopefully, we don’t want anyone to get the virus but, if they get it, it may not end up being something that is that significant in terms of the symptoms, which is a good thing.”

Maybe so, but a Washington Post analysis published on April 8 noted that nationally at least 759 people under 50 had died from COVID-19 at that point.

Of the 1,268 COVID-19 deaths reported in Florida on Thursday, 60 were younger than 50 years old, according to Florida Department of Health data analyzed by the Phoenix. Two people died in their 20s; 19 in their 30s and 39 in their 40s.

The average age of all coronavirus deaths in Florida was about 76, according to the data.

The governor argued that even reopening restaurants to outdoor service poses low risk compared to, for example, the funeral in Albany, Ga., that generated an outbreak among mourners who’d come into sustained close contact, a choir in Washington state, and a conference in Boston.

“Those are more high risk, but being outdoors in open air more low risk.”

Curry, a Republican, said officials based the beach reopening on scientific evidence. “With the data, and with basic logic, it made sense to open wide spaces to let people move and remind them to social distance.”

Jobless benefits

In response to a reporter’s question, DeSantis distanced himself from Florida’s U.S. senators — Marco Rubio and Rick Scott — who have argued that overly sweet jobless benefits authorized by federal COVID legislation are disincentivizing people from working.

“Floridians want to work,” the governor said.

“We had an economy that had 2.8 percent unemployment. People were doing a great job, and this external event upended that for hundreds of thousands of people in our state. It’s been very difficult. We’ve worked extremely hard on fixing a very broken system that you had with unemployment,” he said.

“I think people enjoy being out, doing things that are productive. Part of it is that’s kind of how they are, but I think it will contribute to a sense of normalcy. I can’t guarantee everything’s going to be exactly like it was, but to be able to go and be doing things I think would be a very good thing.”

Problems have been rife with Florida’s unemployment compensation system (installed while Scott was governor) but DeSantis said that of Wednesday 416,000 claims had been paid since mid-March, and an additional 69,000 were paid as of Thursday night.

He blamed mistakes by claimants for some rejections, and said others weren’t entitled to benefits. He added that an investigation into the system is warranted.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.