The gamble appears to be paying off — for now. DeSantis is a Fox News darling and relishes the intensifying backlash from Democrats, especially President Joe Biden, who has criticized the governor and other Republican state executives for rejecting recommendations from public health experts and officials.
But national attention does not always translate into political gain at home and could potentially seed new complications for DeSantis by the time Floridians go to the polls next year to cast their verdict on his first term. For now, the Delta variant’s surge in Florida is a wild card for the governor, who has refused to ramp up mitigation efforts even as the pandemic threatens the state’s tourism industry and — with schools opening — the safety of young students, their families, educators and other staff inside the buildings.
The fates of elected officials in both parties during midterm elections are typically tied to the popularity of the sitting president. If Biden — and, more specifically, Biden’s brand of moderation that has been so popular in the suburbs — is on the up come November 2022, DeSantis could be in for a trickier campaign than most anticipate. If not, cutting a divisive figure could put the governor on a glide path to a relatively narrow, but comfortable re-election.
That logic appears to be influencing DeSantis as he spreads his message across the country, whether on cable or at events like one in Utah in late July, where he ridiculed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over their new mask guidance — “Did you not get the CDC’s memo?,” he asked the mostly unmasked crowd to laughter. “I don’t see you complying” — and pledged to take a hardline against other measures.
“It is very important that we say, unequivocally, no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates,” DeSantis told the conservative gathering.
DeSantis is keen to play to friendly crowds and he appears mindful of where he picks his highest profile fights. His recent mask clashes have mostly centered in counties and school districts where, politically, he has the least to lose — Democratic strongholds that rejected him during his run for governor in 2018.
Hillsborough and Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county, both voted overwhelmingly for Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum nearly three years ago, when DeSantis won his first term by a little more than 32,000 votes, or less than one-half of 1 percentage point.
School districts in those counties have taken steps in defiance of the governor. Hillsborough County Public Schools responded to a spike in Covid-19 infections and exposures by putting in place a 30-day mask mandate, and the school board in Miami-Dade voted to require face coverings in classrooms, setting up another round of conflict with DeSantis and top state officials who have threatened to sanction dissenters.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw argued that rather than the governor being keen to pick fights in areas where he might have already lacked political support, DeSantis is simply carrying out the law he signed in late June, which effectively banned schools from implementing mask mandates without parental opt outs — and that partisan politics might be influencing the school boards’ positions.
“Due to the lack of empirical data to support forced masking of children, which isn’t even recommended at all in many European countries, it is hard to understand why these school boards would willingly violate the law,” Pushaw said in an email. “They argue it’s for the health of children, but they can’t provide data to support that assertion. Therefore it does appear to be political on their part.”
Public health experts, including at the CDC, strongly encourage mask-wearing as a useful tool against the spread of Covid-19.
“Community mask wearing substantially reduces transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus in 2 ways. First, masks prevent infected persons from exposing others to SARS-CoV-2 by blocking exhalation of virus-containing droplets into the air,” according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Second, masks protect uninfected wearers. Masks form a barrier to large respiratory droplets that could land on exposed mucous membranes of the eye, nose, and mouth.”
Hillsborough and Miami-Dade squared up with DeSantis on the same day Biden, in a speech from the White House, revealed that he had directed his Education Department to use its power to potentially overrule state executives preventing local jurisdictions from making their own masking rules. Biden did not mention DeSantis by name, but he called out “some politicians” for “trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain.”
“We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” Biden said, suggesting that that the administration could pursue legal action.
Hours later, in a conversation with Fox News host Sean Hannity, DeSantis mocked the President and again previewed his 2022 — and, potentially, 2024 — campaign messages.
“He is obsessed with having the government force kindergarteners to wear masks all day in school,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, we believe that that’s the parents’ decision. Joe Biden thinks the federal government should come and overrule the parents and force these young kids to wear these masks.”
A day earlier, the Florida State Board of Education voted to recommend investigations into school officials in Alachua and Broward counties, which have acted in defiance of the governor’s ban on mandates. DeSantis lost Alachua, which voted to extend its mask mandate for 8 weeks on Tuesday, by more than 2 points in 2018. And in Broward, Gillum more than doubled DeSantis’ vote total, winning the county by a 68%-31% margin.
Democratic candidates and Democratic-aligned groups are ringing alarm bells over the situation in Florida and pinning the bulk of the blame for the state’s dire circumstances — with more than 20,000 new Covid-19 cases being reported daily — on refusals by the governor and GOP lawmakers to allow proven mitigation measures even as cases climb among children.
According to statistics from the Florida Department of Health, there were 16,764 new cases among those under 12 years old (a cohort not yet eligible to be vaccinated) from August 6-12. That represented a positivity rate of 22.1%, slightly higher than the state average. Floridians ages 12 to 19 years old accounted for nearly 15,000 new cases that week. Their positivity rate also exceeded the state number, at 24.3% to 19.3% overall.
Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Florida governor running to win back his old job, responded to the state board’s decision, describing the standoff as a clash between courageous local officials, some of whom have been threatened with firings, and a power-hungry DeSantis.
“He is overstepping the boundaries of his office to enforce his deadly political agenda on our lives, leaving our school boards and superintendents to bravely do what’s right and stand up against him,” Crist said in a statement. “Governor DeSantis lacks the compassion and common sense to get us out of this pandemic. I continue to stand with teachers, parents, and school boards doing what’s right for our students. We need a leader, not a dictator.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida and another potential DeSantis challenger next year, has also sharpened her attacks on the governor as she touts a federal lawsuit arguing, in part, that bans on mask mandates are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“These unconstitutional threats from DeSantis and (Florida Education Commissioner Richard) Corcoran aren’t about individual rights or freedom,” Fried said on Wednesday. “They’re about pandering to the most extreme voices in order to score political points at the expense of your kids, your family.”
But even as the Delta-powered Covid-19 surge shows few signs of abating as the school year swings into gear, DeSantis is, much in the vein of former President Donald Trump, only becoming more strident — and undermining of real-world data and science that proves the utility of masks.
“Politicians want to force you to cover your face as a way for them to cover their own asses,” he said on Wednesday. “That’s just the truth. They want to be able to say they are taking this on and they’re doing this, even though it’s not proven to be effective they want to continue to do it.”