Florida's slow response: a 'mini-Trump' governor who borrowed the president's playbook

Richard Luscombe in Miami
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP</span>
Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP

In the skies above southern Florida, Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor and self-confessed Donald Trump disciple, was mulling the morning’s developments as he gazed from the airplane window. Returning to Tallahassee after visiting a coronavirus testing site in Miami and issuing a regional stay-at-home order for the state’s four southernmost counties, he was preparing notes for an upcoming press conference and doubtless thinking about the birth of his third child.

The beaches below him were not packed, as in the enduring images that will come to epitomize his lethargic response to the pandemic, but there were enough people milling about to alarm the elected leader of the only one of the “hotspot” states – those with Covid-19 cases at that stage in excess of 5,000 – not to have imposed blanket stay-at-home restrictions.

“Were there people out there? Damn right there were,” DeSantis said of his observations at a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, one day after his Miami visit.

“No matter what you do, you’re going to have a class of folks who just do whatever the hell they want to. Not everyone believes they need to govern themselves accordingly.”

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The scenes on the beaches had clearly resonated with the governor. On Wednesday, before another 24 hours had passed, DeSantis finally issued the statewide shelter-in-place order for Florida’s population of 21 million – one in five of whom are older than 65 – that health officials, scientists and political opponents had been pleading with him to sign for more than two weeks.

During that time, as the number of cases and fatalities grew, Florida’s beaches remained open, thousands flocked to church services (in defiance of local rules) and carefree seniors in the country’s fastest-growing retirement hub, The Villages, did what they always do: play golf.

Offshore, cruise ships stricken with dead or infected crew and passengers waited, unsure if they would be allowed to dock.

Meanwhile, DeSantis appeared to fiddle while Florida burned. He pressed ahead with his patchwork management of the crisis: a partial closure in some areas, interstate roadblocks to deter visitors, asking bars and restaurants to shutter, but mostly allowing cities and counties to set their own rules. Even after issuing Monday’s unified order affecting Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, the governor conceded it contained little that was new. “I just came in and made them all one unit so everyone was on the same page,” he said.

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To nobody’s surprise, DeSantis was taking a leaf straight from the Trump playbook by prioritizing the economy, and listening to advice from the Florida chamber of commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the state’s restaurant and lodging association over that of public health officials warning of a coming tsunami, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

It was all, in the words of Oscar Braynon, a state senator from Miami Gardens, “the dumbest shit I have heard in a long time.”

That Florida’s governor has been in lockstep with the messaging and posturing from the White House at every step of the pandemic, up to and including this week’s abrupt volte-face, was a given, at least to those who have followed the former US congressman’s career in Tallahassee.

DeSantis – hailed from the Rose Garden lectern as “a great governor who knows exactly what he is doing” – consults with Trump regularly and the two share a similar ideology.

As Trump frequently and controversially called Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”, DeSantis was also castigating outsiders, blaming New Yorkers for “seeding” the spread in Florida and dispatching the National Guard to airports to intercept them. When the president mooted plans to classify counties by risk level, then last weekend floated the idea of a quarantine for New York, DeSantis gave his full support.

And as the pressure built this week for a statewide stay-at-home edict, DeSantis admitted he would be taking his orders directly from Washington DC. “Whatever they’re recommending we’ll go ahead and do that,” he said at the Tuesday press briefing. “If any of those taskforce folks tell me we should do x, y or z, then of course we’re going to consider, but nobody has said that to me thus far.”

Unmistakable

The instruction duly came on Wednesday morning, in the form of an appearance on NBC’s Today program by Jerome Adams, the US surgeon general. Asked about DeSantis’s prevarication, Adams responded by quoting Trump’s extension of social distancing measures the night before: “My advice to America would be that these guidelines are a national stay-at-home order.”

The message was unmistakable. Trump and DeSantis spoke again by phone later on Wednesday morning, and by mid-afternoon, with the state’s coronavirus death toll ticking above 100 for the first time, Florida executive order 20-91 was published. DeSantis said on Thursday on Fox News that the U-turn “was the right thing to do” because of the Trump extension.

“We have a governor who does not believe he serves the people of Florida but rather kowtows to the president of the United States,” Donna Shalala, a congressional representative for Miami who was the US secretary of health during Bill Clinton’s administration, told reporters on Thursday morning.

The delay in publishing the order, she added, had been a critical miscalculation. “He hesitated and hesitated and hesitated. He has put us in a dangerous situation. Numerous people will die because our governor hesitated,” she said.

The question now is what consequence the order will have, and whether it has come too late to significantly alter experts’ predictions of a spike in deaths in Florida. On Thursday the University of Washington’s institute for health was still predicting cases in the state would crest in early May, but increased its projected peak daily death toll from 136 to 175, a rate that would lead to about 7,000 deaths by mid-June.

“We are trying to plan for a tsunami on the horizon that everybody is hoping is going to miss our island but is bearing straight down on us,” said Dr Kayser Enneking, professor of anesthesiology at the University of Florida’s department of medicine.

“The response we’ve seen from the state and federal governments has been based not on science but the gut of our leaders. The number of cases in Florida is on the exponential rise, but the lack of testing has impacted our ability to predict where we are in this crisis.”

The picture is also muddled over the medical supplies and equipment Florida says it will need. Last Sunday, Trump insisted that the state’s wishlist, including 5,000 ventilators, half a million each of gloves and gowns, and 2m N95 face masks, had been met from federal supplies. “Florida has been taken care of,” the president promised. “I looked, they’re very aggressive in trying to get things done and they’re doing a very good job.”

But by the following afternoon Jared Moskowitz, appointed by DeSantis as Florida’s director of emergency management last year, had taken to Twitter, frustrated by failed efforts to bring more masks to the state and lamenting a lack of a federal allocation system.

“It feels like a Ponzi scheme,” he wrote, referring to the third-party distribution scheme for equipment manufactured by 3M. “Different distributors represented by brokers selling the same lot of masks bidding against each other. I’m chasing ghosts here.”

As for testing, Jane Castor, the mayor of Tampa, told Slate she believed the state was “woefully underprepared.”

“In Hillsborough County, we received just 900 collection kits over a week ago. We went through those in two days. We just received another thousand, and we’ll get through those in two days as well,” she said.

She was, however, reluctant to place the blame solely on DeSantis: “It’s the first time this governor’s been through it. What a hell of a test this is.”

George Moraitis, chair of Broward county’s Republican Party, was even more generous. “Governor DeSantis is under the microscope but he’s excelling,” he wrote in a Sun-Sentinel op-ed. “He is leading Florida through the Covid-19 outbreak with measured, informed and effective actions to protect both the health and the fundamental rights of all Floridians.”

Evan Jenne, co-leader elect of Florida’s House Democrats, told the Guardian that further down the line he would call for a legislative select committee to evaluate the actions of DeSantis and his administration throughout the crisis.

“We need to know what went right and what went wrong. I have a feeling that both of those will be long lists,” he said. DeSantis’s decree, however, will appear firmly in the second category, in Jenne’s view, not least because it exempts churches and places of worship.

“It’s an executive order with holes big enough you could drive an 18-wheeler through it. Mass meetings of worshipping folks are perfectly fine, and that’s not going to help,” he said.

“At no point in our nation’s history has human sacrifice ever been an acceptable form of worship and you’re potentially going to kill someone, if not put them through respiratory hell. It’s not strict enough in any way, shape or form.”