Gov. DeSantis slams talk of COVID travel restrictions: ‘We will oppose it 100 percent’

Delta airplane. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Ron DeSantis lashed out Thursday against reports that the Biden administration is considering domestic travel restrictions aimed at containing more readily contagious variations of the coronavirus as “an attack on our state” and vowed: “We will not back down.”

“It’s an absurd report that they would be doing that. I think it would be unconstitutional, it would be unwise, and it would be unjust,” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in Port Charlotte on Feb. 11, 2021, said federal travel restrictions to contain virulent coronavirus variants “would be unconstitutional, it would be unwise, and it would be unjust.” Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

“Restricting the right of Americans to travel freely throughout our country while allowing illegal aliens to pour across the southern border unmolested would be a ridiculous but very damaging farce. We will oppose it 100 percent. It would not be based in science. It would purely be a political attack against the people of Florida,” the governor said.

DeSantis was responding to reports by news organizations including the Miami Herald that the Biden team was talking about whether to restrict travel to contain coronavirus variants including the B.1.1.7 mutation, which originated in the United Kingdom and whose capacity for rapid transmission threatens to undo progress toward containing COVID-19.

Florida leads the nation in infections with that strain, which is potentially more lethal.

The most recent data show that Florida has 343 cases of the United Kingdom variant, far more than any other state, and the number of cases nationwide are nearing 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC is tracking two other new strains, the South Africa and Brazil variants, but thus far those mutations have not been detected in Florida.

DeSantis, during a news conference in Port Charlotte, defended his management of the pandemic, arguing that Florida scores well in terms of cases, hospitalization, and fatalities per capita and that the trends look favorable — and that the state has vaccinated about 35 percent of its 4.5 million senior citizens, who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“And so, any attempt to restrict or lock down Florida by the federal government would be an attack on our state, done purely for political purposes,” DeSantis said.

Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior U.S. senator, on Twitter decried the travel-restriction idea as “unreal.” He accused Biden of criticizing Trump’s bans on travel from Europe and China earlier in the pandemic (see this Washington Post analysis of what Biden said).

“Day after Trump issued a #Covid travel ban on #China Joe Biden accused him of ‘hysteria, xenophobia, and fear mongering.’ The following month he said banning travel from any part of the world will not stop coronavirus. But now he is considering restrictions on #Florida travel,” Rubio tweeted.

DeSantis has been mum — until Wednesday — about publicly addressing the troubling B.1.1.7 strain. He spoke about the mutation only after a reporter asked a question, and then he responded. The Florida Department of Health has also been very slow to provide information to the public about the mutation.

Wednesday, the CDC added new information about wearing of masks, including doubling up on masks to make sure residents are protected by COVID and its mutations.

DeSantis did not mention that, in March 2020, he imposed his own travel restrictions, requiring travelers from the New York area to undergo quarantine if they traveled to Florida.

This was when the New York metro area was the nation’s leading hotspot for COVID. He posted law enforcement officers and public health officials at state airports to greet flights but lifted the order on Aug. 6. For a time, DeSantis also set up road blocks on highways leading from Louisiana, another early center of the contagion.

Travel restrictions for Florida would likely harm the tourism industry, which has already been struggling during the pandemic, and a decline in that industry would bring down sales taxes — a key piece of revenue that makes up Florida’s state budget.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, weighed in with a written statement.

“Instituting travel restrictions to Florida is not only bad policy but would erase the small steps towards recovery that Florida hotels and restaurants have made,” she said.

“Our state relies on visitors to keep people employed, fund state and local government, and remain state income tax-free. We are still significantly down because of conference and business travel being down. To restrict individuals and their families from coming to Florida would absolutely kill the economic progress we have made in recent months. As more vaccines are distributed, we are confident that even more people will want to travel to Florida, and we are more than ready and eager to welcome them.”

DeSantis claimed vindication for his strategy of keeping businesses and schools open.

“We have had to stand by Floridians throughout, time and again, and we will do so going forward. We will not back down, and if anyone tries to harm Floridians or target us, we will respond very swiftly.”

It was not clear in what the governor meant by responding swiftly.

DeSantis also needled the federal government regarding his policy of targeting people 65 and up for vaccines (following inoculation of front-line medical staff). Washington had recommended that initial doses go to essential workers including police and firefighters.

“We put seniors first. That was not what we were told to do by the bureaucrats. But we said, ‘You know what? This is impacting seniors more than it’s impacting somebody that’s 42 like me, or somebody that’s 22 in college.’ And so, we’re going to follow the data and we’re going to be there for our parents and grandparents when they need it most.”

The governor’s “illegal aliens” remark may have come in response to President Joe Biden’s revocation of ex-President Donald Trump’s state of emergency declaration for the border with Mexico. Trump used the emergency to justify shifting billions of dollars to his border wall against the wished of Congress, as this report in The New York Times explains.

“I have determined that the declaration of a national emergency at our southern border was unwarranted. I have also announced that it shall be the policy of my administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall, and that I am directing a careful review of all resources appropriated or redirected to that end,” Biden wrote to congressional leaders on Thursday.

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.