In mid-April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took a victory lap. With Covid-19 vaccinations readily available and the pandemic surely coming to an end, his laissez-faire approach to the public health crisis had been surely vindicated. “It’s interesting,” a delighted DeSantis said in a press conference. “Now you’re starting to see some of the mainstream and national media admit: Oh, Florida had schools open—it was the right decision. Oh, Florida has a 4.8 unemployment rate, and yet their mortality rate for Covid is less than a lot of these lockdown states. People were saying Florida was going to end up hit the worst on everything.” But the doubters and haters were wrong. The DeSantis way had “proven to be a better approach.”
And many in the media were ready to preside over DeSantis’s coronation. Politico published one piece declaring that he had “won the pandemic.” In another, it lit into the news media for failing to recognize his obvious success. “The national news media is mostly based in New York and loves to love its Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, about as much as it loves to hate on” the Florida governor, Marc Caputo wrote. “Maybe things would be different if DeSantis had a brother who worked in cable news and interviewed him for a ‘sweet moment’ in primetime.” (It’s fair to say that Caputo and Rayasam do have a point where the media’s Cuomo infatuation is concerned.)
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, meanwhile, observed that “Florida is not only back in business, it’s been in business—and the governor’s gamble to take a laissez-faire approach to coronavirus appears to be paying off, at least politically, at least for now.” The fact that Florida did not go completely to the wolves while its governor bucked the recommendations of public health officials was seen as a cardinal virtue because his maverick approach made him look like an heir to Trump, raising his political profile. DeSantis was proving that you could have it both ways: You could keep your state open and mask-free without worrying too much about what the virus had to say about it.
Well, the virus has since offered a retort. As NBC News noted last month, Florida “has become the new national epicenter for the virus.” Cases and hospitalizations are soaring as the delta variant ravages the state’s unvaccinated population; 22 percent of intensive care unit beds are occupied in the state, the highest rate in the nation. DeSantis has responded by doubling and tripling down. “I think it’s very important that we say, unequivocally, no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no (to) mandates,” he said last week. He has, meanwhile, thrown wild punches at Joe Biden, the media, and undocumented immigrants, whom he blames for the surge in cases, despite the absence of evidence for these claims.
The premature consensus crowning DeSantis as the conquering hero of the pandemic is emblematic of the media’s tendency to use markers such as political optics and the impressions of elites as the standard for success. In a predicament wholly determined by science and a virus that cares little for polls and focus groups, none of these well-worn indicators actually matter. The press came to believe that the Florida governor was a rising star—perhaps even a contender for the 2024 Republican nomination!—and got high on their own supply. Their litany of error serves as a reminder of the risks of letting horse-race political coverage dictate coverage of the pandemic.
The situation in Florida never neatly fit into the national narratives being imposed on it. The state’s economic and public health record was only so-so, something glowing profiles about DeSantis’s decision to eschew recommendations from public health officials hardly contextualized. Meanwhile, many communities in the state did insist on protective measures. “Florida’s COVID-19 saga is a story about local officials and regular people working in the absence of any guidance or common sense from the state,” Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe wrote earlier this year. “To the extent there were any successes in Florida, they belong to locals. Or to plain dumb luck.”
DeSantis’s “success” was always based on a mad gamble wagered against the advice of many prominent public health officials. That aspect of Florida’s “success story” has been woefully undercovered. While DeSantis has argued that he hewed closely to scientific advice throughout the pandemic, his actions and recommendations line up neatly with the tribal politics of the right: no mask mandates, lots of Fauci-bashing, an insistence that everything needed to stay open.
Naturally, political concerns shaped the actions taken by blue state governors, as well. But given the severity of the threat posed by Covid-19—and the large number of unknowns a year ago—a sensible and conservative approach to reopening the economy and guiding the public through the delta wave made eminent sense. DeSantis, by contrast, has taken a perverse approach, seemingly going out of his way to make it difficult to control the pandemic: He has banned mask-wearing in schools and blocked businesses from requiring proof of vaccination.
But even as the media wrestles with the fact that Florida has returned to the teeth of the pandemic despite its rosy adulations, it still can’t seem to contend with the unfolding crisis with any vocabulary other than its typical horse-race tropes. Here’s New York Times Miami bureau chief Patricia Mazzei:
If the latest surge overwhelms hospitals, leaving doctors and nurses unable to properly care for the younger, almost entirely unvaccinated people packing emergency rooms and intensive care units, Mr. DeSantis’s perch as a Republican Party front-runner with higher aspirations could be in serious trouble.
If, however, Florida comes through another virus peak with both its hospital system and economy intact, Mr. DeSantis’s game of chicken with the deadly pandemic could become a model for how to coexist with a virus that is unlikely to ever fully vanish.
This is, broadly speaking, true. DeSantis may pay a political price—he may even lose a reelection bid—if the situation in Florida continues to deteriorate. And given that we still don’t know quite where Covid-19 is headed, it’s possible that playing “chicken” with the virus and its variants is just what life will be like. But we don’t know, and neither does DeSantis: What does matter, at this point, is not how his political prospects will be affected by the rise in cases in Florida but that he continues to flout public health recommendations for the same political reasons. DeSantis is, essentially, exploiting a media blind spot, and the residents of Florida are paying the price. There is a lesson here for those in the press who praised him for taking a sensible approach to the pandemic, if anyone wants to learn it.