Gov. Ron DeSantis is a certain kind of Florida Man. Not because he wore jean shorts and flip-flops to his first day of classes at Yale or because he recently put a surgical mask on upside-down at a news conference, although both those things did happen. Fact is, DeSantis has a reputation for being smart and strategic.
But as he begins to end Florida’s stay-at-home order while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rip through the United States, it’s hard not to imagine the governor standing astride the alligator cage, hollering at the rest of the country to check out what’s about to happen.
“I think there has been a lot that’s been done to promote fear, to drive hysteria,” he said at a recent news conference announcing the phased reopening of his state. “I think people should know that the worst-case scenario thinking has not proven to be true.”
Is this Florida Man on to something? People cringed at his initial response to the coronavirus, as he let spring breakers party on in March even as the epidemiological forecasts were prompting other governors to essentially close their states for business. Even President Trump suggested to DeSantis that he might want to close the beaches in a March phone call, but the governor did not heed his concerns, people familiar with the call say.
But now, after a month of staying home, with Florida much better off than many of the models predicted, the governor is feeling bold. He has been getting credit for how he has handled the crisis from people such as Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, who has praised the state’s covid tracking website on national television and pointed to Florida’s early targeted testing of vulnerable communities in an Oval Office news conference. He has been traveling around Florida on what, at times, looks like a victory tour, missing only a giant banner that says: “They said we would be the next Italy, but they were wrong.”
Still, it’s unclear exactly how well the state has fared. Questions have been raised about whether the DeSantis administration is trying to suppress information. The state government refused to identify nursing homes with coronavirus infections until threatened with a lawsuit. The state also blocked medical examiners from making public their own fatality counts and released a list of those deaths last week only after redacting key information. What’s more, experts believe the number of cases and deaths is an undercount nationwide because of limited testing, especially in the early weeks of the pandemic. Unlike some states that include “probable” covid-19 deaths in their daily tallies, Florida counts only people who had lab-confirmed tests. And with untold thousands infected, DeSantis — like the other governors beginning to open up their states — is taking a risk not just with his own political future but with the lives of his constituents.
When DeSantis was the nominee for governor — anointed by a Trump endorsement — he got into a wrestling match with the president about a different natural disaster.
It was the fall of 2018, and Hurricane Maria had left close to 3,000 people dead a year earlier on the island of Puerto Rico, a fact Trump chose not to believe. The death toll, he claimed, had been exaggerated by Democrats to “make me look as bad as possible.”
DeSantis, who is 41, had dressed his children up in “Make America Great Again” gear for his campaign ads, but even he couldn’t stand with the president on that one.
“He doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated,” DeSantis’s campaign tweeted, in a move that according to a senior Trump campaign official left the president “absolutely livid.”
A political divorce felt imminent. Trump, who believed DeSantis would be nowhere without his support, even contemplated publicly attacking his ally for the perceived lack of loyalty. Instead, with encouragement from his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and recognizing how important Florida would be to his own reelection chances in 2020, Trump stood down, asking only for DeSantis to keep future disagreements private. DeSantis agreed.
Since then, the governor — who declined to be interviewed for this article — has had something of a direct line to the president, often to the chagrin of Trump’s protective White House staff. He pushed a prescription drug importation policy to Trump that some White House advisers consider dangerous and unworkable but that the president embraced. Last year, officials say, DeSantis asked Trump to appear at an event and announced the president’s participation before White House staff members were made aware of the plans. And, in late March, DeSantis called the president and complained about New Yorkers flooding into his state and infecting Floridians with the coronavirus. Trump tweeted that he was “looking at” quarantining the tri-state area, only — according to a senior White House aide — to be talked out of the idea by Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, public health experts and other officials who said it would be impossible to enforce.
Although Trump and DeSantis have plenty in common — the praise they lavish on each other and themselves, their hostility toward the media, their reluctance to shut down the economy because of the coronavirus, their Florida home addresses — DeSantis and Trump took entirely different paths to the top of the Republican Party.
DeSantis was raised in a working-class neighborhood of Dunedin, Fla., a small city on the Gulf Coast. His father installed the boxes that allowed Nielsen to track television ratings, his mother was a nurse, and DeSantis took his Little League team to the World Series before getting himself into Yale and playing four years of college ball.
He was a quiet, sometimes odd kid, who instead of telling his throwing partners to move back during a game of catch would just hurl the ball over their heads.
“He was a man of few words, I guess,” said David Fortenbaugh, who used to warm up with DeSantis at Yale.
Still, he was an able player, and a leader. When his coach was asked by a reporter in 2002 whether he had any recent players who might be president someday, he instantly thought of DeSantis, who by that point was one year into Harvard Law, on his way to the Navy and eventually in 2012 to Congress.
Unlike Trump, a consummate backslapper who derives his energy from being in a crowd, DeSantis was always something of a loner politician.
“I believe I was one of his best friends in Congress, if not his best friend, and we never shared a meal outside of the Capitol and we never had a beer together,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who continues to be one of DeSantis’s few advisers, noting DeSantis would rather spend time with his family.
He has, Gaetz said, different “management love languages” than most politicians and has warned incoming DeSantis hires over the years to expect a brilliant boss, but one who may not actually have “any emotions.”
DeSantis has always kept a tight inner circle. He cycles through consultants, earning a reputation among the discarded as being disloyal. He doesn’t employ a pollster, preferring to trust his own political instincts, and those of his wife, Casey, with whom he has three young children. She is a former Emmy Award-winning television journalist who, according to a senior Republican official who has worked closely with the governor, plays a large role in scheduling events and campaign messaging.
“He’s guarded,” said Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general of Nevada who has known DeSantis since their days rooming together in Naval officer training. “But that’s because he doesn’t want to be influenced by people that are in politics for the wrong reasons.”
In Congress, he seemed most comfortable lost in his thoughts rather than yukking it up with others. A colleague recalled being on a long-distance plane ride with DeSantis and watching as the congressman spent the entire flight twirling his hair — a habit he has had for decades — not even stopping to read a book or listen to music.
Still, DeSantis knew how to turn it on. The tea party darling became a regular on Fox News Channel, spending so much time fulminating about government overreach or Benghazi that he became an expert on putting on his own television makeup, a skill he passed on to his friend and fellow TV gadfly Gaetz.
“He explained concealer first, then foundation, then contour,” Gaetz recalled.
He helped start the House Freedom Caucus, a group of rabble-rousing conservatives who were hellbent on overthrowing their own leadership for being, in their eyes, too squishy. And by the time he decided to run for governor, he decided to do it as a full-throated supporter of Trump and all that he stood for.
That decision paid off.
He entered the race as a relative unknown, but after a flight with the president to a rally in Pensacola, he got the boost he needed to run away with the Republican nomination.
“He was actively pitching the president on his candidacy,” said Gaetz, who was on the plane. “And the president looked over at me and said: Well, is he going to win?”
Gaetz said if the president endorsed then yes, he would. And so, he did.
DeSantis has been referred to as a "Mini Trump," and sitting beside him in the Oval Office at the end of April, the governor looked as if he could be the president's large adult son: that same aging baseball player's build, the manspread engulfing their plush yellow chairs, both sets of hands appearing to play an invisible accordion as they spoke.
The news conference, billed as impromptu but with accompanying posters and charts, came one day before DeSantis announced his phased plan to turn on the Florida economy. It felt, as all of Trump’s news conferences feel these days, a little like a campaign rally.
“He’s done a spectacular job in Florida,” Trump said, his gaze flicking between the gathered reporters and the governor. “He’s going to be opening up large portions, and ultimately pretty quickly because he’s got great numbers in all of Florida.”
“What have the results been?” DeSantis asked himself. “You look at some of the most draconian orders that have been issued in some of these states and compare to Florida in terms of our hospitalizations per 100,000, in terms of our fatalities per 100,000. You name it, Florida’s done better.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the president “has a close relationship with Gov. DeSantis and believes he is doing an incredible job for the state of Florida. Both value the federal-state partnership and speak often by phone, sharing important ideas and perspectives on things for Florida and the entire country.”
In a strange twist, while the coronavirus has been bad for nearly everyone in the world, it has been good for the reputation of many of the country’s governors: New York’s Andrew M. Cuomo, Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, California’s Gavin Newsom and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, to name a few.
Not, however, DeSantis.
After his campaign for governor, which he won against the liberal Andrew Gillum by the slimmest of margins, DeSantis surprised a lot of people. He left behind his conservative attack-dog persona for something more moderate — funneling money into environmental protection, supporting medical marijuana initiatives, hiring liberals into his administration — and became one of the most popular governors in the country.
Almost completely unknown just a few years prior, now there was talk about DeSantis someday, perhaps soon, seeking higher office. He became close with Trump’s campaign manager, Parscale, who now talks to DeSantis more than he does any other governor.
Between March 1, when the governor announced the first two cases of coronavirus in Florida, and April 1 when, despite his reluctance, he issued a statewide stay-at-home order, DeSantis’s poll numbers tumbled like the stock market.
The dithering didn’t seem to help, nor did the fact that the state seemed completely unprepared to deal with an economic collapse. The $77 million website built in the previous administration has done such a terrible job processing all the claims for unemployment that DeSantis has ordered an investigation as to why.
“This was something that we knew about before the crisis,” said Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo. “It could have been fixed, and now we are one of the worst places in the country to be unemployed.”
But whether by good planning, or good luck, Florida seems to have avoided the worst-case scenarios. A model developed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington was predicting nearly 7,000 deaths in the state by August — though that number would fluctuate depending on the level of social distancing. There have been fewer than 2,000 reported deaths so far. Hospitals have not been overrun. And there is a large surplus of ventilators sitting unused. On May 7, the state got back 20,000 tests and found only 358 people, less than 2 percent, tested positive.
To DeSantis’s credit, even while keeping the state open, he did take some early actions that probably kept the virus from spreading: upping the state’s ability to administer coronavirus tests, limiting who could visit nursing homes and putting a pause on nonessential hospital procedures. Florida now has 13 drive-through testing facilities, 10 walk-up sites, and even an RV that can drive to vulnerable communities, such as nursing homes, and conduct testing on site.
The state may have also benefited from more localized actions: mayors shutting down beaches in their cities before it was mandated statewide, Disney World closing in the middle of March.
Now, what happens next, as DeSantis begins reopening the state, may determine whether the governor becomes a national star — perhaps even a presidential candidate in a post-Trump world — or another overconfident Florida Man entering a cage only to find himself face to face with a beast that he may or may not understand.
He’s not flinging open the gates willy-nilly. The reopening will be phased, “methodical” and based on data, the governor says. It’s an approach that even some Democrats in the state will admit has been thoughtful.
“I think he could have been a little more expeditious early on,” said Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor of the state who is now a Democrat serving in Congress. “But I think he’s been a quick study.”
Still, one way to look at the better-than-expected numbers is as proof that mitigation efforts are working and that any loosening could lead to more outbreaks.
“I’m worried about opening things up again,” said Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist from the University of Florida. Prins said it’s possible that the gains made by staying at home can easily be undone by people — suffering from “stay-at-home fatigue” — looking for any hint that it’s okay to go back to business as usual.
“Personally,” she said, “I want people to feel uncomfortable.”
That’s not how DeSantis sees it. When asked last week if he’d personally bring his young family to a restaurant in the current climate, DeSantis didn’t hesitate.
“One hundred percent comfortable,” he said.