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Opinion Even by Florida standards, Gov. Ron DeSantis is a covid-19 catastrophe

Gov. Ron DeSantis talks about the importance of keeping restaurants open during the pandemic at a news conference at the Okeechobee Steak House in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 15. (Greg Lovett/AP)

Earlier this month, just as Florida neared its 20,000th covid-19 death, a bit of good cheer popped into the inboxes of 160 state lawmakers: an invitation (plus one!) to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s holiday bash at his Tallahassee mansion. No masks or social distancing required; any devotion to science or reality could be checked at the door. The event narrowly avoided superspreader status: The state senate’s president regretted his absence only hours before the soiree when a coronavirus test came back positive.

Welcome to Florida — America’s sun-drenched State of Suspended Disbelief. From the pandemic’s infancy, DeSantis has conveniently, even diabolically, airbrushed covid-19 out of public life here. The result: 1.2 million total covid-19 cases, nearly 61,000 total hospitalizations and a new seven-day case-positivity rate of 9.7 percent — all rapidly rising toward crisis levels. Even Texas, which isn’t exactly a model of coronavirus caution, has a statewide mask mandate and lower cumulative infection rate than Florida.

The Republican governor’s response to the pandemic, in other words, has been a disaster — yet he shows no signs of changing course. Today, amid the state’s third surge, Floridians and tourists stand shoulder-to-shoulder in bars and restaurants and sashay into nightclubs and strip clubs. At the same time, DeSantis continues to shrug off statewide mask and distancing orders along with any real effort at contact tracing.

Amid the coronavirus shutdown, families living from paycheck to paycheck were forced to live without power at a crumbling motel in Kissimmee, Fla. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Eve Edelheit/The Washington Post)

The governor has consistently played down the risks of covid-19, ignored credentialed scientists, sided with herd-immunity advocates, withheld information about hospitalizations and cases in nursing homes and schools, and cherry-picked numbers. In a state with a strong open-records law, DeSantis smothers transparency. As part of a “Blue Skies” initiative, reported by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, our governor even made clear that the state health department’s media people should not mention covid-19 until after the election; instead, department communications encouraged Floridians to get their flu shots and sign up for hearing-loss screenings.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Now DeSantis is refusing to release the weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force Reports on Florida, and news organizations are suing. Replete with dire warnings, the reports apparently contradict his cavalier way of doing business here.

As if all this weren’t enough, DeSantis has also barred local governments from implementing shutdowns or fining mask scofflaws, making it even harder to persuade Floridians to take anti-covid-19 precautions. Some cities are in open rebellion, setting the stage for a state-local showdown. Who said Republicans aren’t hot for centralizing power?

The governor can at least take credit for one successful contact trace: His public-health strategy is openly tied to President Trump. DeSantis even paid tribute, in a way, by placing 1 million orders of hydroxychloroquine. It was the least he could do, considering that aping Trump got him elected in 2018.

DeSantis, for his part, pats himself on the back for his half-blind strategy. “We have, I think, really saved the livelihoods of millions and millions of students, parents, workers, business owners by approaching this in an evidence-based way that focused on facts, not fear, and in a way that was more moderate,” the governor recently told political donors and corporate bigwigs.

Admittedly, the state’s open-for-business policy has preserved jobs. Yes, wrecking Florida’s vulnerable tourism-and-hospitality economy would only ruin more lives, although many visitors are steering clear because of our hands-off covid-19 response and high numbers. I also agree schools should be open with the right precautions. But the governor has needlessly damaged the lives of so many Floridians with his unnecessary all-or-nothing approach: Mask mandates and social distancing are not pointless, and manipulating information to hide the seriousness of the pandemic is reprehensible.

DeSantis knew all too well that Florida would largely embrace his reckless approach. Floridians aren’t exactly known for their prudence and judgment. There’s a reason we gave the world Florida Man — who “responsibly” fires guns, “does not routinely defraud Medicare,” “resists the impulse” to haul an alligator into a convenience store or showcase his own “Most Wanted” poster on his Facebook page. It’s not a coincidence that, pushed by DeSantis, wearing a mask here devolves into a quién es más macho standoff. It’s a mask, for God’s sake, not a sedation-free vasectomy.

To be sure, not all Floridians are buying what DeSantis is selling. They are, however, buying the perfect protest prop: “My Governor Is An Idiot” face masks. According to a woman who sells them on Etsy, many Floridians are scooping up her inventory. Meanwhile, on Twitter, the governor has been dubbed “Duh-Santis,” an impressive distinction for a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School. I guess it’s better than his other handle, “DeathSantis.”

It’s hard to imagine what, at this point, DeSantis could do to redeem himself. But considering that vaccines won’t be fully available until late spring, and simple precautions could save thousands of lives in the meantime, it would sure be helpful if a tea party-backed, Trump-loving governor promoted them. Maybe the next time the governor goes to a high school football game packed with maskless fans, as he did recently, he can give us all a lifesaving holiday gift: Suck it up, set a good example and strap on a mask.

Read more:

Cardinal Wilton Gregory: Praying apart isn’t the same as praying together. That’s why we sued D.C.

Aaron Schwid and Tom Frieden: How to reopen the economy safely? Immunity passports.

Diana Nyad: I have the pandemic to thank for this precious time with my old hound, Teddy

Lizette Alvarez: In managing covid-19, colleges must tend to students’ minds as much as their bodies

Megan McArdle: Our nation’s covid-19 failures extend far beyond Donald Trump

Xinyan Yu: I’m from Wuhan. I got covid-19 — in Florida.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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