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Ron DeSantis wasn’t always a COVID rebel: Looking back at the Florida governor’s initial pandemic response


Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been bringing up early pandemic history on the campaign trail, pitching himself to primary voters as the governor who led the conservative rebellion against COVID health guidance.

“I was the leader in this country in fighting back against Fauci,” DeSantis said in an interview on “The Ben Shapiro Show.” “We bucked him every step of the way.”

During an appearance on the The Glenn Beck Radio Program, DeSantis said Florida was “one of the few who stood up, cut against the grain” when reopening schools and businesses. And he took jabs at the COVID record of his 2024 opponent President Donald Trump.

“When he turned the country over to Fauci in March of 2020, that destroyed millions of people’s lives,” DeSantis said.

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In Florida, throughout March 2020 and the first months of the pandemic, DeSantis himself made many calls about closures and stay-at-home orders that hewed fairly closely to the health guidance by federal health officials at the time. And when compared to fellow Republican governors, DeSantis’ reopening does not look exceptionally aggressive. But the Florida governor did take the lead in opposing mask and vaccine mandates.

Florida’s early lockdown resembled those in much of U.S.

DeSantis declared a state of emergency on COVID in Florida before the U.S. had declared its state of emergency. He closed schools in the early weeks of the pandemic just as all 49 other states did; in fact, Florida schools closed to in-person instruction a couple of days before New York schools did.

By March 16, 2020, when about 6,000 cases of COVID were confirmed in the U.S., President Donald Trump’s administration announced social distancing guidelines and states around the country began to issue stay-at-home orders. Just four days later, DeSantis started a partial shutdown of Florida stores and beaches.

After Trump extended national safer-at-home guidelines, the governor issued his version of a 30-day stay-at-home order on April 1, asking people to refrain from non-essential activities. Previously, he’d been resisting, even amid reports that people were flocking to Florida during spring break. 

“When the president did the 30-day extension, to me that was — people aren’t just going to go back to work. That’s a national pause button,” DeSantis said.

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DeSantis made the same policy decision made by the majority of governors in the country, but two of DeSantis’ 2024 challengers, Asa Hutchinson, then the governor of Arkansas, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum bucked the trend, refusing to issue stay-at-home policies, along with five other conservative governors. Still, both governors, who are also running for president, did close gyms, restaurants and other places identified as high risk by early April.

“We want to do things that actually work and make a difference,” Hutchinson said when he was pressed by PBS on why he ignored Dr. Anthony Fauci’s guidance that all states impose shelter-in-place orders. “Our social distancing, our wearing masks is what is working in Arkansas.”

The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

DeSantis and minority of state chief executives opposed mask mandates

On mask mandates, DeSantis was in the minority as one of 11 state chief executives who resisted imposing the strategy at any point during the COVID pandemic after the CDC started recommending that people wear masks outside their houses in April 2020. Still, local governments in Miami, Orlando, and other big Florida cities leaned on the policy to try to blunt the spread.

Hutchinson signed a state-wide mask mandate during a surge of cases in his state in the summer of 2020 that he kept in place for 8 months, while Burgum issued a mask mandate for a few months to slow the spread over the holiday season that year.  

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When Florida experienced its first big surge in the summer of 2020, doctors representing Physicians for Social Responsibility gathered outside the governor’s mansion to ask DeSantis to impose a mask mandate. The governor told reporters he’d never force the measure “under penalty of criminal law.”

“We should be trusting people to make good decisions,” DeSantis said.

By 2022, the governor’s rhetoric had soured so much on masks that he asked a group of students wearing face coverings at his press conference to take them off.

“It’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater,” DeSantis said.

Florida reopened aggressively, along with other Republican states

DeSantis wasn’t the first governor to risk reopening businesses, but he was one of the Republican governors who moved more quickly to do so than health experts recommended at the time.

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By April 16, 2020, the Trump administration had released a reopening plan for states that advocated unwinding mitigation measures in stages as cases and deaths decreased — a so-called “gating” strategy.

Shortly afterward, Georgia, Alaska and Oklahoma attracted criticism from health officials and then-President Trump for partially reopening businesses in their states. At a coronavirus press briefing on April 22, 2020, Trump targeted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, saying, “I disagree strongly with [Kemp’s] decision to open certain facilities.” 

A week later, DeSantis kicked off Florida’s reopening process, allowing restaurants and other businesses to open their doors to a limited capacity. He defended that decision with appeals to the public health strategy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the time. His order argues his state had “achieved several critical benchmarks in flattening the curve.” 

Former Arkansas Govs. Asa Hutchinson and Governor Burgum were right on his heels, releasing their plans for a phased reopening of businesses on May 1, 2020.

Florida unwound restrictions throughout May and June, and Florida cases rocketed up through the summer.

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Florida reopened its schools for its 3 million public students at the start of the new school year in August 2020, in line with most of the states in the country, but after states like North Dakota, where Burgum allowed schools to begin reopening for summer instruction in May 2020.

By the end of September, DeSantis was done with all closures, and he had adopted a more combative tone in his order to fully reopen: “No COVID-19 emergency ordinance may prevent an individual from owning or operating a business,” it read.  

DeSantis was one of first governors to ban vaccine mandates

When COVID vaccines were first released, DeSantis, like many other governors, trumpeted their arrival. As Trump’s term was coming to an end after he was defeated in the 2020 election, the Florida governor attended a White House summit on the vaccines that were about to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA.

A couple of weeks before Christmas that year, New York nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first American outside of clinical trials to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and DeSantis facilitated the rollout in his state and got his shot by the spring of 2021 — though he didn’t do so in front of cameras.

As late as July 2021, DeSantis was touting the benefits of vaccines, telling a local Fox station, “If you look at the people that are being admitted to hospitals, over 95% of them are either not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all. And so these vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.” 

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But DeSantis rejected proof-of-vaccination requirements as a COVID-mitigation strategy. He was one of the first governors in the country to issue an order banning businesses from requiring proof of vaccination for customers — after only Utah Governor Spencer Cox. Eighteen other Republican governors followed suit to prohibit proof-of-vaccination requirements, including Hutchinson and Burgum.

When the Biden administration required businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure their employees were vaccinated or had COVID-19 testing, DeSantis filed a lawsuit arguing that “the federal government is exceeding their power.” 

By November of 2021 DeSantis had signed legislation prohibiting private companies in Florida from imposing blanket vaccine requirements, enforced by a $50,000 fine per violation for larger companies. Texas, Alabama, and Montana pushed similar bans on their state businesses. 

In North Dakota, Burgum signed a law requiring businesses to exempt employees from vaccine mandates if they can claim moral conflict — an obstacle for companies that some say amounts to a ban. But South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, also a fellow Republican, was hesitant to expand her state’s role in the management of private businesses.

“It is not conservative to tell businesses what to do and how to treat their employees,” Noem said. 

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DeSantis has also stopped his public advocacy of the shots, ducking questions about whether he ever received a booster shot. In recent weeks, DeSantis’ campaign has stoked vaccine fears, writing on an official Twitter account that former President Trump didn’t “acknowledge any of the adverse effects” of vaccines during an interaction he had with a vaccine skeptic in Iowa.

Despite Trump’s claims, Florida deaths look better than U.S. average  

Trump fired back at DeSantis, posting on Truth Social that “Florida was the third WORST State in Deaths by Covid.”

In terms of total death toll, Florida does come in third, after states who also have the largest populations in the nation — California and Texas — according to a New York Times count. But by a metric researchers rely on to compare state responses — deaths per capita  — Florida comes in 13th in the nation, according to data from the New York Times. 

Florida had a lower death rate than Democrat-led New York which leaned on policies like mask mandates. And the state’s fatalities start to look better-than-average in a 2022 analysis that standardized deaths per capita for age and prevalence of major comorbidities, which helps account for all the Sunshine State retirees who were most at risk for severe outcomes when they contracted the coronavirus. In those standardized rankings Florida had the 12th lowest death rate in the country, and New York was not far behind, with the 15th lowest. 

In the states led by DeSantis’ opponents, North Dakota was also below average, with the 17th lowest adjusted death rate in the Lancet study, while Arkansas’ rate of COVID deaths the worst of the three: it sits in the tier of states that had standardized death rates slightly above the national average.  

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Alexander Tin contributed to this report.

Published: 2023-06-15 18:46:00

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