Last week, when a Republican governor set plans to begin reopening his state, President Donald Trump signed off before reversing himself and declaring the strategy a mistake.
This week, as another GOP governor contemplates his own reopening scheme, he’s talking to the President in person.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to Washington on Tuesday to meet with Trump in the Oval Office as the expiration of his state lockdown order nears on May 1.
He said during the meeting he would unveil his reopening plans on Wednesday. And he made sure to compliment the President and his handling of the crisis, praise Trump returned in spades.
It was a meeting of two like-minded politicians who have both been criticized for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The similarities were evident during a lengthy question-and-answer session in the Oval Office; both lamented the coverage they’d received in the press and sought to project momentum on how many tests are being administered, despite persistent shortfalls.
As he has repeatedly over the past month, Trump harkened back to his early decision to restrict some travel from China and Europe as evidence of how he’d handled the crisis. But DeSantis suggested those restrictions hadn’t made a significant impact in Florida.
“If you look at our outbreak, not a lot of it is tied to that,” he said, suggesting more cases were imported to Florida from other US states, like New York.
Instead, DeSantis said he had raised concerns about coronavirus infecting more individuals in the United States from Latin American travelers, and that he would like to see those travelers receiving rapid tests before boarding their flights into the US.
Trump indicated his administration is working with airlines to conduct temperature checks and coronavirus tests on international passengers coming into the United States.
When the President raised the prospect of “cutting off Brazil,” DeSantis suggested something more constrained.
“Well, not necessarily cut ‘em off, but it’s just, if you’re going to fly to Miami, then the airlines should give you the Abbott test and then put you on the plane,” he said.
“Would you ever want to ban certain countries?” Trump asked. “You let us know.”
Trump has encouraged governors to be aggressive in their reopening plans, telling state leaders in a conference call on Monday to “seriously consider” reopening schools if it’s safe.
Some governors have been less willing to loosen restrictions on businesses and gatherings as testing continues to lag and outbreaks persist.
DeSantis, visiting a hospital in Tampa on Monday, said the return to normal would be “methodical, slow and data driven.”
He repeated in the Oval Office that the first steps toward reopening would likely resemble the state’s current status.
“For Florida, going from where we are now to phase 1 is not a very big leap,” he said. “I think we will be able to be a small step for us. We will approach it in a very measured, thoughtful, and data-driven way. That’s what most of the folks throughout the state are looking for.”
Cues from Trump
In the past, DeSantis has taken his cues from the President, who tweeted ahead of their Oval Office meeting: “Many States moving to SAFELY & QUICKLY reopen!”
Once a holdout on issuing mandatory stay-at-home orders in Florida, DeSantis cited Trump’s own tone-shift on coronavirus when he ultimately declared a lockdown at the start of April.
“It is a very serious situation,” DeSantis said at the beginning of the month. “When you see the President up there and his demeanor the last couple of days, that’s not necessarily how he always is.”
The Republican governor had come under harsh criticism for allowing spring breakers to crowd beaches and resorts as other states were entering mandatory shutdowns and restricting access to public spaces.
He defended his actions seated next to Trump on Tuesday, taking another cue from the President in lashing out at the press.
“Everyone in the media was saying Florida would be like New York or Italy and that has not happened,” he said. “We had a tailored and measured approach.”
Trump and DeSantis have remained in close touch throughout the crisis. They spoke at the start of the month as DeSantis was considering his statewide order. And they were in contact as Trump contemplated slapping travel restrictions on New York and its neighbors; DeSantis complained to the President that some people from that area were bringing coronavirus south to his state.
The personal relationship has appeared to help DeSantis secure from Trump badly needed personal protective equipment and other supplies, even as other states struggled to have their requests fulfilled.
Trump said Tuesday he and DeSantis had consulted during the crisis about ventilator needs in Florida, agreeing that the news media and certain Democratic governors were overplaying shortfalls.
DeSantis said he’d conferred with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner on the issue, and they agreed Florida didn’t require additional shipments of ventilators from the federal government.
Trump has placed ample responsibility on individual governors for planning their own states’ reopening plans, and on Monday unveiled a federal strategy than places much of the onus on states to scale up testing – a requirement, health experts say, to safely returning to normal.
But even as Trump issues Twitter declarations for states to “liberate,” he has cautioned some governors that they are moving too quickly.
Last week, after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced a plan allowing businesses like nail salons and bowling alleys to reopen, Trump initially told him on a telephone call he supported the plan.
But after members of Trump’s coronavirus task force – principally Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator – cautioned that Georgia’s reopening plans rebutted the federal guidelines Trump had unveiled a few day earlier, he reversed course.
“I told the governor of Georgia Brian Kemp that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities which are in violation of the phase one guidelines for the incredible people of Georgia,” Trump said during a news conference last week.
He suggested he would intervene if he saw “something totally egregious.”
DeSantis, perhaps hoping to avoid a similar public intervention, has been vague about his own plans for reopening. He will receive recommendations from his own state task force, and said Monday he would adopt a phased approach, indicating the first moves toward reopening would amount to “baby steps.”
But many in Florida, where tourism and hospitality represent major economic drivers, are itching for a loosening of restrictions.
And Trump, who himself is now a Florida resident, is highly attuned to the state’s politics as his reelection nears. Polls over the last month have shown former Vice President Joe Biden with a modest lead over Trump in the state, though it remains a close race.