Gov. DeSantis widens rift with White House on COVID policy, but their approaches may be converging

Gov. Ron DeSantis lambasted the Biden's approach to fighting COVID during a news conference in Sebastian on March 12, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis lashed out at President Joe Biden Friday for appearing to suggest that lockdowns remain on the table under federal policy if the country falters in containing COVID-19, calling that prospect “insane.”

“Biden last night said that they may have to impose more lockdown-type policies in the future. “I can tell you, that ain’t happening in Florida. We are not going to let him lock down Florida,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Sebastian, in Brevard County. He was there to open a vaccine distribution center.

“To even contemplate doing any type of lockdown — honestly, it’s insane,” he said.

The governor had seized on a single sentence in the president’s 3,000 word address to the nation Thursday night. The speech focused on the country’s progress in beating the virus and the need to work together to that end.

“Because if we don’t stay vigilant and the conditions change, then we may have to reinstate restrictions to get back on track. And, please, we don’t want to do again,” said Biden, who is a Democrat. Both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and controlled by Democrats.

The governor’s outburst reflected an increasingly testy relationship between the Republican governor and Biden, who defeated his political patron, Donald Trump, in last year’s presidential election.

Since then, the governor has been a frequent Biden critic, complaining recently that the $1.9 trillion Democratic COVID rescue plan shortchanges Florida because it targets unemployed individuals instead of sending Florida a pro rata share of the overall spending.

Contributing to the tension are divergent approaches to administering COVID vaccines.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is administering doses over and above the state’s allotment to underserved communities through walk-up sites in Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. The feds haven’t followed DeSantis’ seniors-first approach, instead allowing doses to school employees of all ages and other younger adults.

Also on Thursday, Biden called upon the states to make every adult eligible by May 1.

DeSantis has been targeting most of Florida’s doses to people aged 65 and older, because they’re most vulnerable to serious complications and death. He has acquiesced to the federal policy even while pursuing his own priorities with the state’s stash.

In fact, the two approaches may eventually converge. DeSantis will allow shots for people aged 60 and up beginning on Monday and has projected vaccinating people above age 55 by the end of March, ratcheting down the age cohorts from there.

“I’m pretty sure by the time that March is up, we will have all 55 and up, no questions asked, and then surely sometime in April, depending on demand, I think it will be open to all adults that want it,” he said.

In a subsequent news conference in Port Orange, in Volusia County, the governor made it more explicit. “I think certainly before May 1 we will be able to open up to all adults,” he said.

The governor has been arguing lately that Florida has been building a robust vaccination network and that the main hold-back is lack of vaccines. The state is administering doses through hospitals, county health clinics, churches, drive-through sites, retail pharmacies, and a variety of vaccine “pods,” or points of distribution.

“That, I think, is better than trying to have it all centralized through the government, and have the government be the one that is dictating all of these appointments. Because the fact of the matter is, A CVS or a Publix or a hospital or some of these people, they do it better than the government does it,” he said.

DeSantis, who faces reelection in 2022 and perhaps a presidential run in 2024, stopped an earlier lockdown and reopened Florida to boost the economy, allowing businesses, schools, beaches and other venues to stay open during the pandemic.

He has refused to initiate a statewide mask mandate, despite the new COVID variants spreading across the country. Florida has the largest number of variant cases in the nation.

But he has been criticized for what Democrats and other critics call a lax approach to handling the coronavirus in Florida. He briefly limited business activity but soon backtracked.

The governor now argues that his approach works, leaving Florida with a relatively benign unemployment rate compared to states like California and New York that restricted people more.

“We like the fact that people are able to work here. We like the fact that we’ve been able to save thousands, thousands of businesses, save people’s livelihoods. And we love the fact that parents have a right to send their kid to school in person,” the governor said Friday.

“So, we’re going to continue doing what works, but under no circumstances would we entertain anything of the sort.”

He seemed unimpressed with Biden’s hope that enough people would get shots to allow small gatherings of vaccinated family members and friends by Independence Day.

“Here’s the thing: You want to increase the vaccination rates? You can’t tell people that you’ve got to wear masks for the rest of your life. You gotta tell them, ‘Get the vaccine so you can live normal,’” DeSantis said.

“Some of the messaging has just been so destructive, to try to get people to want to do it. Why would you want to do if there’s no benefit for them? When they say, ‘Oh, you may be able to have a couple of family members over for July 4?’”