Despite leading one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has preferred to take a relative back seat to the crisis so far, leading to mounting criticism of his lack of leadership in a time of need.
The Republican governor was slow to respond to the pandemic, allowing Florida beaches to overflow with partying college students on ‘Spring Break’ as the covid-19 was already spreading, before finally issuing a social distancing order that took effect last Friday, weeks after other large states like New York and California.
That may come back to haunt the DeSantis. The total number of deaths in Florida is expected to reach 6,770 by August, according to one widely reported projection. The tourist-dependent state is also one of the most vulnerable to the economic shock being caused by the pandemic due to its empty beaches and amusement parks, according to another study.
A popular retirement destination, Florida has comparatively large share of its 21 million residents over the age of 65, making it more vulnerable to the virus.
The Florida Department of Health reported Wednesday that more than 15,000 Floridians tested positive for Covid-19, with 356 deaths. Most of the cases are concentrated around the more densely populated cities in south and central Florida. Those cities - Miami, Tampa and Orlando – did not wait for DeSantis, issuing their own stay-at-home orders almost three weeks ago.
But this week more cases began showing up in long-term care facilities in north Florida, which was the last region in the state to shut down under DeSantis’ ‘stay at home’ order.
Florida is an important swing state in the U.S. electoral system, and the perceived success or failure of efforts to control the virus could influence Trump’s reelection chances. DeSantis was elected in 2018 and is not up for re-election until 2022, protecting himself from any immediate backlash this November.
According to a University of North Florida poll of Florida voters released on Monday, found mixed levels of job approval for DeSantis and president Donald Trump in their address of the coronavirus pandemic. The poll showed 45% strongly or somewhat approve of the job Trump is doing to address the pandemic, with 53% disapproving. DeSantis clocks in at 51% approval, with 46% disapproving.
“DeSantis is higher than Trump, but the gap is narrower than it is for almost any other governor in the country,” said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida.
DeSantis has closely followed the White House lead in handling the crisis, saying he took his decision last week after listening to Trump, with whom he has a close relationship. But critics say that, like the president, he ignored the early public health warnings and was focused on limiting the economic damage.
“ It’s quite clear that DeSantis is more concerned about the perceived economic impact of the coronavirus in Florida, and he is hearing that directly from Donald Trump,” said Smith.
In an editorial, the board condemned DeSantis as a “timid leader in the face of the growing scourge” of Covid-19 cases, saying he is “working overtime to preserve our status as the world’s leading exporter of political comedy.”
The governor's office did not respond to a request by Univision for comment on criticism of his leadership.
DeSantis is especially under attack over Florida’s failing system for filing unemployment compensation claims, CONNECT, which collapsed under the unprecedented weight of calls. Thousands of Floridians unable to complete an unemployment application or get phone help.
DeSantis said on Monday he is throwing manpower and enhanced computer capacity to field phone calls regarding jobless claims, which last week hit 3.8 million. “We’re in a situation where people have lost their jobs, they are looking for relief and they’re having a lot of difficulty,” DeSantis recognized during a roundtable at the Florida Capitol.
Florida’s weekly unemployment benefits offer a maximum of $275, among the lowest in the nation. The maximum 12-weeks unemployed Floridians can collect benefits is also the shortest in the country.
The $2.2 trillion federal relief package signed into law by President Trump will provide an additional $600-per-week for four months, on top of state benefits.
Cuts to health service
Only 11 percent of unemployed Floridians received benefits before the coronavirus hit, one of the lowest recipient rates in the nation, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
State officials knew as early as 2005 that an outbreak could devastate the state and infect much of the population, according to an investigation by Tampa Bay Times. They wrote reports, bolstering the state health department with resources and specialized workers to combat a potential crisis.
But several Republican governors and lawmakers subsequently slashed research funding, and cut thousands of jobs that has undermined the state’s ability to detect fast-spreading diseases, the paper reported.
Under former Governor Rick Scott, 3,700 jobs were eliminated from the state’s public health department, about 20 percent of its workforce. DeSantis’ first budget last year cut nearly 600 more public health positions.
DeSantis recently congratulated the Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva by presenting him with a baseball bat with the words “slayer of the healthcare industrial complex” inscribed on it.
Critics compare DeSantis’ low key approach to the more visible role played by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “When you look at the governors who appear to be getting good marks they are the ones being very accessible, up front and frank,” said Steve Schale, a longtime political consultant and campaign manager for a political action committee, of ‘Super PAC’ backing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
While Cuomo has held lengthy daily press briefings, despite the chaotic situation in his state, DeSantis has limited press access to his news conferences in the state capital, Tallahassee, even going to some lengths to lock out a Miami Herald reporter.
The potential death toll in either state – Florida or New York – is bad news for any politician. While savings lives is the immediate priority, DeSantis can afford to take a long term view, confident that by the time he faces the voters again in 2022 the state will have recovered from the economic damage.
But, it is still too early to tell how big a mistake that may have been. “ The reality is that the politics of this thing are hard to read. We don’t know how long it’s going to last,” said Schale. “We could have a second outbreak in the fall and rebuilding an economy that is largely built on other people spending their money here (on tourism) is going to be challenging,” he added.