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DeSantis sells ‘Don’t Fauci My Florida’ merch as new coronavirus cases near highest in nation

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) takes part in a roundtable discussion about protests in Cuba on July 13. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Fox News host Tucker Carlson suggested that he should be criminally investigated. Republican members of Congress introduced a “Fire Fauci Act” to remove his salary.

Now White House medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci — a polarizing figure in the U.S. response to the coronavirus — is also part of a rising GOP star’s political branding.

“Don’t Fauci My Florida,” read drink koozies and T-shirts that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s preliminary campaign team rolled out just as his state sees some of the highest coronavirus hospitalizations, new infections and deaths per capita in the country. It’s the latest example of Republicans running on their opposition to virus-fueled shutdowns and mask mandates. A pandemic hero to some and villain to others, Fauci has become a high-profile target.

While the merchandise is focused on Florida before the 2022 gubernatorial race there, DeSantis is seen as a potential front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. A key part of his pitch: He resisted public health experts’ calls for stricter measures against the spread of the coronavirus, spurring criticism on the left and praise from the right for keeping his state’s schools and economy comparatively open.

While discussing the Florida budget this summer, DeSantis said his state’s rosy financial outlook would not have been possible “if we had followed Fauci.”

“Instead we followed freedom,” he said.

While the campaign has yet to officially launch, its “Team DeSantis” Twitter account announced the new merchandise Monday. The Fauci items are listed alongside “Keep Florida Free” hats and red koozies that take aim at face coverings with a DeSantis quote: “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?”

Fauci did not respond to a request for comment.

New coronavirus infection numbers plummeted in Florida after vaccinations became widely available, but they have ticked up in recent weeks. The state is reporting daily cases close to four times the national average — 26 new infections per 100,000 residents, the second-highest number in the country. The state’s latest covid-19 death rate is almost double the national figure, and it ranks fourth for current hospitalizations.

As new coronavirus variants emerge and the longevity of vaccine protection remains unknown, scientists are researching how booster shots could work. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Tracker: U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths

Fauci has been a vocal proponent of mask mandates and other measures to mitigate covid-19, the illness the novel coronavirus causes, though he and other federal health officials encouraged schools to open with safety precautions. As a coronavirus adviser to the Trump administration, Fauci criticized some of Florida’s decisions: In the fall, he called the state’s move to fully reopen restaurants and bars “very concerning.”

“When you’re dealing with community spread, and you have the kind of congregate setting where people get together, particularly without masks, you’re really asking for trouble,” Fauci said at the time on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “Now’s the time actually to double down a bit, and I don’t mean close.”

DeSantis avoided statewide mask requirements even as leaders across the political spectrum embraced them amid growing evidence of their effectiveness. This spring, he suspended all virus-based local rules for businesses and individuals.

The governor has encouraged people to get vaccinated but also banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination, arguing that such measures are a form of discrimination against people who refuse vaccines for medical or religious reasons. He also successfully sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep it from enforcing its coronavirus rules on cruise ships in Florida, a major part of the state’s tourism industry.

Florida GOP executive director Helen Aguirre Ferré, who said she has been taking media inquiries for the DeSantis team, told The Post in an email that while “we are making light of Fauci, his policies were flawed and devastating to many.”

“Governor DeSantis has seen to it that Florida is an oasis of freedom, and we’ll be darned if we let federal bureaucrats and absurd government overreach mess with that,” she said. She also noted that daily reported covid-19 deaths have recently been at their lowest average since spring of 2020.

With the new merchandise, DeSantis is trying to cash in on a growing conservative backlash toward Fauci, a longtime government scientist who has advised seven presidents and directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Throughout the pandemic, Fauci has drawn ire from the right for advocating restrictions and changing stances on whether the general public should wear masks. Fauci says he and other public health leaders flipped positions as they learned more about the effectiveness of face coverings and after initially fearing that the public would snap up masks needed for health workers.

But the focus on Fauci intensified after BuzzFeed News and The Post recently obtained some of his early pandemic emails. The doctor was a target of criticism and derision at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, where ominous black-and-white video clips of Fauci talking drew loud boos from crowd.

Resistance to shutdowns, masks and vaccine promotions came up often at the conservative gathering. “We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states … that they didn’t mandate masks,” said South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), another leader seen as a potential 2024 presidential contender.

Analysis: The alleged Fauci ‘smoking gun’ emails

Fauci has called criticisms from high-profile Republicans “bizarre.”

“I’ve become sort of, for some reason or another, a symbol of anything they don’t like” related to anything “contrary to them or outside of their own realm,” he said this spring.

Florida has seen more coronavirus cases than most states, recording nearly 11,300 infections per 100,000 people to date. It ranks roughly in the middle for deaths per 100,000, according to data tracked by The Post, while early East Coast hot spots such as New York and New Jersey have the highest fatalities per capita, followed by some Southern and Sun Belt states hit hard as the pandemic’s U.S. epicenters shifted.

About 47 percent of Floridians are fully vaccinated, and the state is projected to reach 70 percent vaccination — the Biden administration’s original nationwide goal for July 4 — in late August, according to a Post analysis. Most covid-19 deaths are occurring among the unvaccinated.

To critics, DeSantis spurned medical experts in a public health crisis that overwhelmed hospitals and has led to nearly 39,000 deaths in his state. But others have cheered DeSantis for prioritizing the economy.

In May, Florida ranked roughly in the middle of states on unemployment, according to the latest federal data, and averaged 7.7 percent in 2020, slightly below the national average of 8.1 percent.

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