“We succeeded and people just don’t want to recognize it,” he blustered. Then, jabbing his finger at reporters, he scolded the press: “You’ve got a lot of people in your profession who waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York,” he said.
That was May 20. A little less than 10 weeks later, Florida, with DeSantis at the helm, has become a global ground zero for Covid-19 cases and a poster child for the Trump administration and its closest allies’ failures in responding to the pandemic. The nationwide angst over schools is playing out in pointed clashes between teachers and DeSantis, who is pushing hard for a full-scale reopening. Trump’s obsession with hosting a live, in-person convention extravaganza, supported by DeSantis, collapsed under the weight of the crisis. And the Major League Baseball season has been thrown into doubt as the sports world waits to see if the outbreak among Miami Marlins players and coaches spreads to other teams.
As the hot-button fights rage on, so too does the spread of the virus among ordinary Floridians. The state surpassed New York’s total count of Covid-19 cases, with 414,511 and rising. Only California, with its larger population, has recorded more. Hospitalizations in Florida are up and ICU capacity across the state is tumbling. On Saturday, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration reported that only 17% of ICU beds were still available. And in hard-hit Miami-Dade County, the virus positivity rate exceeded 19%, nearly double its target.
A close political ally of Donald Trump who made the President’s support the centerpiece of his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, DeSantis has remained closely in-line with the White House’s messaging. But a politically unfamiliar landscape is looming for DeSantis if the situation in Florida doesn’t improve rapidly, and along with it Trump’s poll numbers in the state. The President in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace last Sunday gave a hint that his public support for DeSantis might be reaching its limit.
“We’ll put out the flames. And we’ll put out in some cases just burning embers. We also have burning embers,” Trump said, speaking about the coronavirus nationwide. “We have embers and we do have flames. Florida became more flame like, but it’s – it’s going to be under control.”
DeSantis has been in touch with or in the close vicinity of Trump on at least two occasions since the interview. First, he spoke to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence last Wednesday. A day later, his press office revealed that DeSantis had discussed with Pence, who visited Miami on Monday, the state’s need for the antiviral drug Remdesivir. The next day, DeSantis said a shipment of 11,000 vials was en route.
The contents of his conversation with the President were not disclosed.
Asked about governor’s remarks in May, and the suggestion by critics that he spoke too triumphantly, too soon, spokesman Fred Piccolo said DeSantis has always been forthright with his constituents.
“To say (Gov. DeSantis) took a victory lap is unfair,” Piccolo told CNN. “The Governor has an obligation to inform the citizenry of the progress against Covid-19 and is doing that on a regular basis. He’s delivered good news and bad news but he’s always done it honestly and data centric. The governor is a husband, a father and, a political leader who wants to get back to normal as fast as the rest of us do. That’s why he’s crisscrossing the state asking Floridians to take the precautions necessary to move us in the right direction.”
The mixed messaging from administration leaders continued on Saturday afternoon, when Halsey Beshears, Florida’s secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, announced plans to meet with bar and brewery owners to plot out a path to bringing customers back inside.
“We will come up with a Safe, Smart and Step-by-step plan based on input, science and relative facts on how to reopen as soon as possible,” Beshears tweeted. Less than 24 hours later, the state reported 9,259 new cases – the 23rd time in July that the daily case count exceeded 9,000.
It announced another 8,892 on Monday. The overall death toll in the state is now approaching 6,000 people.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, said it “would be a horrible decision” to open up bars now, expressed similar concern over schools and pointed to “the issue of whether the decisions (made by the state) are data-driven or political.”
Public health concerns appeared to take a backseat to politics when the state issued its mandate for a full reopening of schools. But last week, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths mounting, DeSantis took a half-step back from that directive, saying he would support teachers and parents who felt their safety this fall demanded a return to remote learning.
His statement came amid a surge in Covid-19 infections among children under 18. Over eight days, there has been a 34% jump in positive tests and a 23% increase in hospitalizations. The figures, from the state Department of Health, also showed the positivity rate among minors ticking up 1 percentage point overall but approaching 20% in Miami-Dade and as high as 25.3% in Martin County on the state’s Treasure Coast.
From early on in the pandemic, DeSantis has – while attributing bad news to the influx of people from states like New York – aggressively courted pro sports leagues and, after North Carolina’s governor effectively nixed Trump’s plans to hold a blowout convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, said he would welcome a re-nomination shindig in Jacksonville.
But on Thursday, Trump abruptly announced that Republican National Convention activities in the Florida city, including his acceptance speech, would not go ahead, citing the safety risk.
“I looked at my team and I said the timing for this event is not right. It’s just not right,” Trump said at the White House. “To have a big convention, it’s not the right time.”
Trump’s decision might have been more of a political wager, with new campaign manager Bill Stepien and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel presenting the option to cancel as an opportunity to score political points, according a GOP source with knowledge of the process. Approval for Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has dropped precipitously over the past few months, along with a growing public trust deficit that has coincided with his sinking poll numbers in the head-to-head race with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
A CNN poll released on Sunday showed Biden with a 5 percentage point lead, 51% to 46%, in Florida, where Trump has been running second since March. The gap has been wider in other surveys, including a Quinnipiac University poll from last week, which showed Biden up 51% to Trump’s 38%.
DeSantis and Trump could also be facing a new, headline-grabbing controversy with word on Monday that Major League Baseball had postponed two games following reports that more than a dozen players and staff from the Miami Marlins tested positive for the coronavirus during their season-opening series in Philadelphia this weekend.
The Marlins did not travel home to Miami, as planned, on Sunday night for their home-opener, which was scheduled for Monday. They will receive additional testing, according to MLB. The Philadelphia Phillies, who shared a field with the Marlins for three days, were supposed to host the New York Yankees on Monday night. It’s unclear precisely where and when the outbreak began, with the Marlins having played a pair of exhibition games in Atlanta last Tuesday and Wednesday.
Spoke too soon
Florida’s descent, and the political implications around it, have been viewed more starkly in light of DeSantis’ early tone in discussing his management of the crisis, which did not initially affect the state on the scale of what New York saw in March and April. That narrative, promoted by some in conservative media and eagerly embraced by DeSantis, is backfiring now.
On the morning DeSantis touted his state’s record on coronavirus outside the White House in late May, the National Review’s Rich Lowry published a story, featuring an interview with DeSantis, titled, “Where Does Ron DeSantis Go to Get His Apology?” – a piece that jabbed at skeptical reporters and the governor’s liberal critics.
“DeSantis and his team have followed the science closely from the beginning, which is why they forged a nuanced approach,” Lowry wrote, “but one that focused like a laser on the most vulnerable population, those in nursing homes.”
But now, two months later, patients and residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are increasingly feeling the brunt of the virus. The Ocoee Health Care Center Long Term Care & Rehabilitation, near Orlando, confirmed to CNN on Sunday that 66 of its residents have tested positive for the virus, with a third of them now hospitalized, while 30 staff members are also infected.
As of Saturday, 46% of all Covid-related deaths in Florida have been linked to long-term care facilities, according to the state Department of Health.
Florida’s Division of Emergency Management launched a second round of “incident management teams” last week, with 50 of them assigned to assess 4,000 locations. DeSantis said the state is dedicating a dozen facilities exclusively to the treatment of patients who test positive for the coronavirus.
In the May story, DeSantis shared his initial concerns over the prospect of a widespread shutdowns, noting that he’d done his homework on past pandemics and came away it with no clear sense of whether they’d work or what the knock-on effects would be.
“So I was very concerned about things on that side as well,” DeSantis told Lowry, “and I think that’s why I had a more nuanced and balanced approach than some of the other governors. Because you have some of these health officials saying, ‘You’ve got to do this. This is science,’ or whatever. But really, these were unchartered territories.”
CNN’s Rosa Flores, Randi Kaye, Denise Royal and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this story.