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Opinion Too many Republicans are taking covid-19’s side in the fight against the pandemic

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during a news conference in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on Aug. 5. (Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

This is the GOP’s pandemic now. Cynical and irresponsible Republican politicians have created an environment that is killing Americans who shouldn’t have to die, swamping hospital systems with desperately ill patients, and generally ensuring that the pain and disruption of covid-19 are with us longer than they need be or should be. And they’ve done so in their own self-interest.

Yes, the more-infectious delta variant is driving this new wave. But vaccination and mask-wearing have the power to check that spike in cases, and to prevent those new diagnoses from turning into hospitalizations and deaths.

Can we possibly be so stupid that we ignore all empirical evidence and insist on inflicting grievous self-harm? Ambitious Republicans are betting that the answer to that question is yes.

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Public enemy number one is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is transparently trying to position himself as a contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. DeSantis has signed legislation barring local governments from imposing covid-19 restrictions and prohibiting businesses from requiring that patrons be vaccinated. He has fought to prohibit cruise ships sailing from Florida ports from mandating vaccinations. And though he supposedly supports local control over public schools, DeSantis has threatened to withhold state funding from districts that require students to wear masks.

DeSantis has taken the position that pandemic public health measures are an intolerable assault on personal freedom — a message many rank-and-file Republicans apparently welcome. Florida is now seeing as many as 20,000 new cases of covid-19 per day, more than any other state in the nation. Hospitals in cities such as Jacksonville are overwhelmed with more covid patients than they treated in the darkest days of January.

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DeSantis at least recommends that Floridians get vaccinated. But his attacks on public health officials and his emphasis on the idea that vaccination is a personal choice rather than a community responsibility undercut that message. Now, he is trying to claim that President Biden’s border policies, not Floridians’ choices and DeSantis’s policies, are somehow to blame for new cases.

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“Why don’t you do your job?” DeSantis said Wednesday, addressing Biden — and trying desperately to change the subject. “Why don’t you get this border secure, and until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about covid from you.”

Maybe DeSantis is feeling defensive. In a speech Tuesday, Biden told Republican governors that if they won’t help bring the pandemic to an end, then they should “at least get out of the way.”

Another ambitious Republican who won’t heed that sensible — if blunt — message is Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, the state second only to Florida in new covid-19 infections. Abbott vows that “in Texas there will not be any government-imposed shutdowns or mask mandates. Everyone already knows what to do. Everyone can voluntarily implement the mandates that are safest for them, their families and their businesses.”

But if “everyone already knows what to do,” why did Abbott sign a sweeping executive order that says “no government entity, including a county, city, school district and public health authority” in Texas can impose mask or vaccination mandates? His position is that “the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”

Louisiana is also in crisis. But that red state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, imposed a statewide indoor mask mandate, calling on residents to prove their pro-life bona fides by complying.

The vaccines were developed and given emergency-use authorization during the Trump administration. Just as Edwards found a way to invoke conservative principles in the fight against the pandemic, Republicans such as DeSantis and Abbott could tout Trump’s approach, rather than attack Biden.

But they are not exhorting their constituents that they have a “personal responsibility” to get vaccinated, wear masks or take other precautions. Rather, DeSantis and Abbott frame covid-prevention measures in terms of personal freedom. Their basic message: Your body, your choice, nobody else’s business.

But that’s not true. Those who make the “personal choice” not to be vaccinated or not to mask up in appropriate settings are also making a choice to put others at risk. They can spread the coronavirus not just to other unvaccinated individuals, but also to those who can’t get vaccinated; those for whom the vaccines are less effective; and vaccinated people who might themselves not get seriously ill but could potentially pass the virus to more vulnerable members of their households.

I recognize that some GOP governors, such as Kay Ivey of Alabama and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, are behaving more like responsible adults. Hutchinson has even said he regrets the ban on mask mandates he earlier signed into law.

But Florida and Texas are now generating one-third of all new coronavirus infections in the country. The virus wants to keep replicating itself. DeSantis and Abbott are covid-19’s best allies in that fight.