The word “COVID” appears just twice in a report card released shortly before the new year, in which Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledges “a year of challenges” but also “historic feats, innovation and resiliency.”
Yet DeSantis’ administration — now at the halfway point of his term and up for reelection in 2022 — will be judged largely on his response to the COVID-19 crisis, which emerged in early March and expanded into a devastating portrait. The latest data show more than 1.3 million infections and nearly 22,000 resident deaths thus far, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Critics and pundits have slammed DeSantis, while his supporters have stood firmly behind the governor’s strategy for eradicating COVID and providing vaccines to millions of Floridians.
The COVID crisis likely caused the defeat of his political patron, Donald Trump, notwithstanding that the governor led his party in delivering Florida for the president.
Conservative Republican DeSantis can certainly claim victories — even on issues liberals can love.
He’s pushed through higher teacher pay for public educators and hundreds of millions for water projects and Everglades restoration. He’s appointed dozens of judges, including respectable numbers of women and minority group members. He and First Lady Casey DeSantis have worked to expand access to mental health care.
At the same time, the Florida Education Association took the governor to court over his plans to force teachers back into classrooms notwithstanding the COVID threat. He’s done nothing to block the plan to build massive tollways through some of Florida’s last pristine wilderness.
And those judges? Each one has demonstrated fealty to the conservative-to-libertarian theories promulgated by the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.
One of DeSantis’ biggest victories of the year involved the courts, when he won the approval by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit of a law requiring felons seeing reinstatement of voting rights to first pay all outstanding court-ordered fines, fees, and restitution, significantly curtailing their participation in the general election — a blow to felons who have done their time.
But the governor also suffered significant set-backs, perhaps most spectacularly when the Florida Supreme Court rejected his nomination to the court of Judge Renatha Francis on the ground she hadn’t been a member of the Florida Bar for the constitutionally required 10 years.
That said, all of these issues have been dwarfed by COVID.
As Evan Jenne, co-leader of the Democratic Party in the state House, observed in a telephone interview: “There is no other story in the state of Florida other than COVID. That has shaped everything, whether it be the economy, health care, schooling, everything.”
The handling of a crisis
Faced with a once-in-a-century crisis, the governor emulated Trump’s reluctance to force the societal and economic restrictions that epidemiologists’ urged.
DeSantis did order a limited lockdown in the early weeks of the crisis. Later, he openly second-guessed that April 1 decision to restrict business activities and urge Floridians to remain within their homes except for essential errands.
He brought researchers lacking epidemiological credentials — including Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who supported the president’s COVID instincts — to Florida who argued for reopening society months before any vaccines would become available.
And the governor faced mounting criticism over whether he was selectively using public health data to support his eventual decision to throw open the economy’s doors, as well as those of schools and higher education, and to refuse a statewide mandate to wear face masks or allow counties to enforce their own.
Dominic Calabro, executive director and CEO of the nonpartisan good-government organization TaxWatch, argued that, regarding COVID, DeSantis has weathered the crisis well.
“Overall, Florida is in a much better position than many other states,” Calabro told the Phoenix.
Better, Calabro said, than he himself had predicted. “For better or worse, you have to give the governor who’s sitting at the time [of crisis] a lot of the credit or discredit. And I think he deserves a tremendous amount of credit.”
In his self-assessment, DeSantis centered on positive trends.
“As we look toward 2021, I believe Floridians have reason to be optimistic. The vaccine has arrived in Florida and we have started vaccinating front-line health-care workers, and we were the first state in the nation to begin vaccinating residents of long-term care facilities,” he said in that document.
“As more vaccine supply becomes available, we will continue to prioritize Floridians most vulnerable to the virus to reduce the impacts of social isolation and support our state’s ongoing economic recovery.”
How well has Florida done with COVID?
The governor’s communications office didn’t reply to a request for comment beyond the report card, but Ferré — now executive director of the Republican Party of Florida — praised DeSantis in a written statement.
“As the global COVID-19 pandemic grew in the U.S., Gov. Ron DeSantis swiftly put a plan into motion that immediately began with the closure of nursing homes and long-term care facilities to visitors to protect Florida’s most vulnerable residents. This proved to be a very bold and lifesaving measure.
“He also worked hand in glove with Florida hospital leaders and health care experts to ensure that their needs were met and that federal resources were identified, acquired and used for maximum benefit during the pandemic. For example, when hospitals faced a shortage of nurses and needed relief for their health care frontline workers, Gov. DeSantis worked with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to get additional nursing personnel to address nursing staff shortages at Florida’s hospitals. He also called on retired nurses to consider coming back in to help save lives.
But over the months, nurses have been protesting over shortages of staffing and equipment and cuts in staff. Unions representing nurses have said that dozens of those health care workers have died from COVID-19 even as they tried to help patients.
How well has Florida done with COVID? The infection rate per capita in Florida is at 6,357 per 100,000 people, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Florida’s rate ranks 26th among the 50 states, meaning lower than half the states in the country.
Rates for other large states with a high number of infections, include: California, which shows 6,251 infections per 100,000; Texas, at 6,242; New York, at 5,265, and Illinois, at 7,750.
Rep. Jenne questioned the governor’s policy of leaving issues to “a patchwork” of county-level COVID guidelines. “That’s not how this works in a modern society,” he said, noting that viruses bear little respect for jurisdictional boundaries.
Jenne did praise the governor’s decision to focus on protecting nursing home residents from COVID, including the decision to bar transfers of COVID patients from hospitals to the homes to shield vulnerable seniors. DeSantis also has given those seniors priority in distribution of vaccines.
“But the state’s a lot bigger than just that community and you have to be governor for everybody and not just a select few,” Jenne said.
Another DeSantis critic — Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orange County — gave much of the credit for the mechanics of the administration’s COVID response to Jared Moskowitz, the governor’s emergency management director.
“One thing Florida has gotten right is access to testing,” Eskamani said.
Still: “It’s one thing to be able to access the test, but the data transparency of the tests has been in question. The complete lack of communication from the governor on every issue you can think of, whether it’s unemployment or vaccination guidelines. Every county’s doing something differently so it’s just like complete chaos.”
She pointed to confusion over access to the new coronavirus vaccines. News reports have documented long lines of seniors waiting to be inoculated in some counties only to be turned away for lack of supplies.
Eskamani sees a more serious, long-term problem manifested in Rebekah Jones, the state data analyst the administration fired for alleged insubordination. Jones claims it was because she declined to manipulate data to make the state’s response look better than it was.
Jones, who has established an independent data report, left the state following a high-profile search of her home by gun-wielding Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents over an alleged data breach within the state emergency alert system.
She denies any wrongdoing and contends the charge was meant to intimidate potential whistleblowers. Forbes has named her its technology person of the year. By contrast, The New Republic named DeSantis its “Scoundrel of the Year” because of his COVID response.
Questions remain about how DeSantis will proceed in his third year in office. Will he accept the Biden election’s legitimacy? Will he work with a Democratic administration in Washington, D.C.? How will he deal with the pandemic and other state priorities?
“That is going to be very interesting to see. A lot of it goes back to how does Donald Trump react on Twitter,” Jenne said.
“This is a great opportunity for Gov. DeSantis to do a better job in the second half of his term,” Jenne continued.
“He has the opportunity to not be sycophantic and not ride along on somebody else’s coattails. He can break away from that anti-science, anti-knowledge dogma. He’s got an opportunity where he doesn’t have to follow anybody else’s lead for the first time in his governorship. I’m actually kind of excited to see whether he does that or not.”