Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proudly welcomed the Republican National Convention to Jacksonville last week. On Sunday, he marked the official return of audience-attended professional sports in Florida by waving the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In between, he urged schools to reopen next fall.
DeSantis’ moves to return his state to normal have been as aggressive as any governor, but there’s one inconvenient fact: Florida’s coronavirus cases are rising to record levels and the percentage of positive tests has been steadily climbing ever since the state fully implemented the first phase of its reopening May 18.
How the first-term governor — and ally to President Donald Trump — squares those economic and public health imperatives resonates far outside his state’s borders.
Trump’s reelection hinges on carrying Florida, where DeSantis’ messaging is right in line with the president’s reelection campaign. Both want to shift the focus of the political discussion from the pandemic to economic recovery, making the success or failure of the GOP governor’s balancing act a key indicator of Trump’s fortunes this fall.
In a sign of the governor’s — and Florida’s — importance to Trump, the president showcased DeSantis at a White House event in late April to brag about the state’s progress.
On Friday, when DeSantis first spoke to reporters about the GOP convention moving to Florida in August, the state was setting new records for the number of coronavirus cases reported each day. But he downplayed the severity of coronavirus’s spread, partly because hospitalization and death rates remained relatively low and stable. And he framed the convention as an economic shot in the arm, rather than a petri dish of infection as some detractors contended.
“You’re talking about a massive economic impact. I think you’re gonna have folks that are going to be able to spend a lot of money,” DeSantis said. “I think it’ll help with the economic recovery. … Look, we’re not out of the woods with the jobs by any stretch.”
The mere act of holding a political convention in Florida has become a point of pride for state Republicans and the Trump campaign as they try to put Covid-19 in the rearview mirror and insist that it’s safe to continue opening up. One reason: Trump polls poorly over his handling of coronavirus, but fares better against Joe Biden on the issue of handling economic recovery after the pandemic.
An economic rebound won’t come easy. Service and tourism industry-dependent Florida is experiencing huge job losses and the state unemployment compensation system is dysfunctional. The coronavirus isn’t going away either — recent data, in fact, suggest the opposite.
On the day DeSantis spoke to the press, the state hit a daily record of 1,902 new cases. The following day, another record was set, with 2,581 new cases, before falling to 2,016 on Sunday and 1,758 on Monday. For the first time since the coronavirus struck, the state has seen almost two weeks of new daily cases that exceed 1,000. That’s partly a function of increased testing, but the average weekly positivity rate in the state is now 6.4 percent — more than double what it was when it bottomed out a week after the state began opening back up.
Notably for public health advocates, DeSantis didn’t wear a face mask before, during or after his news conference Friday. He didn’t stress the need for social distancing and personal protective equipment. He mentioned the negative effects of lockdowns by pointing to their “profound” socio-economic effects, as well as the health consequences for children who don’t get needed vaccines.
DeSantis is “shooting himself in the foot,” said Dr. Aileen Marty, a Florida International University pandemic expert who is advising the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez.
DeSantis is “so eager to open up the economy because we’re in a recession now. It is a horrible situation. But he thinks in downplaying the threat of the virus that’s going to help the economy,” she said. “It’s going to backfire because if people fail to understand how dangerous this particular virus is, they’re going to act in irresponsible ways.”
That, in turn, could increase infection and lead to devastating effects on public health as well as the economy, she said.
As a researcher who has studied viruses from Asia to Africa, Marty said the GOP convention could be a “wonderful way to spread infection.” And, she said, the same will probably be true of the protests that have gripped the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a white Minneapolis police officer.
“The virus doesn’t care what we’re doing when we gather together, whether we’re protesting or having a convention or a party,” she said.
DeSantis is paying close attention to the protests, referring to them to implicitly justify the convention coming to Florida.
“I would remind people that we just were through an era, a two-week period, where you had tens of thousands of people gathering in very close proximity in Hollywood, California, New York all these places,” DeSantis said, noting health officials are monitoring Florida cities that saw large demonstrations. “There is not yet evidence that I’m aware of that that has sparked any type of significant outbreaks.”
By pointing to the demonstrations, DeSantis spoke to a deep frustration among conservatives who see a double standard in media coverage — they note that discussion of the prospect of coronavirus infection was relatively muted in the national TV news coverage of protesters, many of whom are associated with the political left. But now that the convention is being moved to Jacksonville, the focus is once again on the risks of mass gatherings.
“In Duval County, where they’re gonna have the Republican National Convention — Memorial Day weekend to the present — Covid hospitalizations are down, 50 percent,” DeSantis said. “They’ve had a relatively minor outbreak compared to other parts of the country. But I know they’re all working on that.”
Later that day, exactly one week after DeSantis paved the way for them to partially reopen, the first of three bars in Jacksonville Beach started to close back down due to a coronavirus scare.
DeSantis said the RNC and Jacksonville, run by former Florida GOP chair Mayor Lenny Curry, are working on plans to make the convention safe. He said older people and others in an “at-risk demographic” should take extra precautions.
Unlike at the beginning stages of the pandemic in March and April, DeSantis said, the state now has more and better testing available, which has naturally increased the number of positives. The increase in the positivity rate indicates that infection is spreading, but DeSantis pointed out that more young and asymptomatic people — who are at low risk of being hospitalized or dying — are now being infected. He also attributed some of the spike in positivity rates to “outbreaks” among farmworkers, nursing-home employees and in state prisons.
But the University of Florida’s Mark Settles, a professor of horticulture who has been tracking the state’s data on his Facebook page, pushed back on DeSantis’ rosy take.