Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, has descended to a jaw-dropping level of cynicism. At a news conference on Monday, he announced that if local governments in Florida impose vaccine mandates on their employees, he would fine them $5,000 for every worker. Then he stood silently by as Gainesville city employees made false claims about the mRNA vaccines that have saved countless lives during the pandemic.
Although the wave of illness from the delta variant appears to be receding in Florida, the state has suffered a terrible summer toll of hospitalizations and deaths. A governor facing such a cataclysm might naturally be expected to use all methods to keep people safe. Instead, Mr. DeSantis, an ally of former president Donald Trump, has for months been campaigning against mask and vaccine mandates and actively sought to prevent business, government and schools from imposing them. These are vital tools to save lives in the face of a highly transmissible disease, but the governor insists that everyone should have the right to make their own decision. He casts himself as a defender of personal freedom.
This is a favorite argument of Republican governors and others, including Mr. Trump, who last year amid lockdowns was tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and other states. But personal freedom does not give an individual the right to hurt others. Those not wearing masks and refusing to get vaccinated are spreading the virus and overcrowding the nation’s hospitals. They are the majority of those who are dying. This is not freedom; it is recklessness.
Mr. DeSantis’s threat came in response to a policy by the city of Gainesville requiring that employees be vaccinated by the end of the month or be terminated, with exemptions for religious or medical reasons. More than 200 city employees filed a lawsuit seeking to strike down the mandate. “The vaccine changes your RNA, so for me that’s a problem,” said Darris Friend, a 22-year city employee who is the lead plaintiff. “We don’t want to have the vaccine. It’s about our freedom and liberty.” Mr. Friend’s assertion is wrong. The vaccines do not change RNA; they simply train the body’s immune system to fight the virus. Mr. DeSantis claims to favor vaccination. By aligning himself with such misinformation, he adds to the vaccine hesitancy that has become a major roadblock to greater immunity and ending the pandemic.
Certainly, vaccine mandates will be difficult for local governments and businesses if valued employees are terminated during a tight labor market. Some local governments in Florida, including Miami-Dade County, have adopted a less onerous approach, requiring testing with an opt-out for employees who display proof of vaccination. Some school districts in the state are wisely resisting the governor’s ban on mask mandates, too.
Mr. DeSantis harbors national political ambitions. But what he’s displaying here is crass opportunism and disregard for the greater good. As he stokes the ignorance and misguided impulses of some in the Republican base, he is acting against the very tools needed to save lives and stop the pandemic.