For more than a year, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is second in polling for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 after Donald Trump, acted as if the pandemic were a game. He mocked, fired, and even arrested state data experts, resisted and undermined mask mandates, downplayed the severity of the pandemic, and let ordinary Floridians bear the human costs of his failed leadership.
His actions telegraphed an overall disdain for common sense health measures. Last month, DeSantis issued a "blanket pardon" for businesses that refused to comply with local Covid-19 measures, and he successfully sued the CDC to re-open the cruise industry in the middle of a surge of cases. At various points last year, when the danger of the pandemic seemed distant or receding, DeSantis declared premature victory, taking victory laps only to see cases, hospitalizations and death surge again weeks later.
July 2021 was no exception. Less than three weeks after fundraising off anti-vax and anti-science merchandise, including T-shirts that declared "Don't Fauci My Florida" and koozies with a DeSantis quote, "How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?" Florida is once again ground zero for Covid-19. Over the past week, Florida has accounted for one out of every five cases in the country, and hospitalization rates are up 95 percent in a month, prompting the entire Florida Democratic House delegation to condemn DeSantis for his complicity and urge immediate action. They wrote,
"Since the start of the pandemic, Florida has remained a national focal point due to your administration's lax, delayed, and incomplete responses to this serious threat. Your administration's reluctance to use all the science- and evidence-based tools available to defeat the virus has created unwarranted roadblocks at the local level. For example, your administration has thwarted statewide mask requirements, acquiesced to those who broke local COVID restrictions, suspended all emergency local protections, banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination, and discontinued daily reporting. These actions are dangerous and are complicit in engendering this surge."
But for the first time, DeSantis finally appears to be tacking to address the health crisis, which as the White House has pointed out is a pandemic among the unvaccinated. DeSantis unexpectedly emerged from denial last week to urge Florida residents to get vaccinated, declaring, many months late, that "Vaccines are saving lives."
This otherwise uncontroversial statement actually earned him derision from the right, with Ret. Gen. Michael Flynn accusing DeSantis of trying to be "politically correct" and a conservative podcaster even falsely suggesting that he took bribes or that his family must be being threatened.
DeSantis's about-face mirrors several other prominent conservatives who suddenly began to tout the vaccine, including Fox News hosts (other than Tucker Carlson) and Governor Kay Ivey of neighboring Alabama, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Despite never doing much to organize and urge vaccinations of her state's residents, Ivey rather suddenly and bluntly stated that "folks are supposed to have common sense" and that "It's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks. It's the unvaccinated folks who are letting us down."
It isn't clear what is causing a mass rush of conservative voices to switch gears so quickly and give the GOP base serious Covid whiplash. But one plausible theory is the hard math of it all. Given that lack of vaccination aligns so closely with political affiliation, if this newest Covid wave sickens or kills tens or hundreds of thousands of GOP voters, that could have real consequences in swing counties and states. Governor DeSantis only won his state by a margin of 0.4 percent in 2018, or about 33,000 votes. And there have been 38,869 deaths in Florida alone from Covid so far—with 38,321 new cases reported on Friday.