Most of those subject to the mandates, of course, simply got the vaccine and are now both protected against covid and far less likely to spread covid to the people they’re sworn to protect. Those who didn’t have often been celebrated as heroes. Martyrs, even. And where there’s an opportunity to turn the coronavirus pandemic into a moment of political posturing, there’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
On Sunday, DeSantis encouraged those officers who refused the vaccine to come to his state, even proposing a $5,000 bonus should they choose to do so. “If you’re not being treated well, we’ll treat you better here,” he promised during an interview on Fox News, fittingly.
For months now, DeSantis has tried to walk a line between the skepticism about vaccines that’s common in a very vocal part of the Republican base and the need to, you know, try to keep Floridians alive.
He made a bet this summer that the drop in coronavirus infections that followed the broad roll-out of vaccines in the spring would allow him to take a more forceful position against efforts to contain the virus, like masks. By July, his campaign website was selling “don’t Fauci my Florida” merchandise, a reference to the country’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci — who has also become a prominent figure on the right thanks to former president Donald Trump’s disparagement of his work.
But cases were already rising quickly in the state thanks to the delta variant of the virus and Florida was soon making up a disproportionate number of cases and deaths from covid-19.
Any time a member of the media writes about DeSantis’s approach to the vaccine, a member of his staff will huffily insist that the governor encouraged Floridians to get vaccinated. And he has. But he’s also been careful not to alienate the hard-right base on the subject. He’s not repeatedly insisting on the importance of vaccinations the way West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) has. When the state was getting hammered by the virus, DeSantis put his energy into treatments targeting covid instead of increased vaccinations.
Florida’s vaccination rate actually decreased during the fourth coronavirus surge relative to the period immediately prior. Mississippi’s percentage of residents who had received at least one vaccine dose rose by 16 points from June 21 to today, compared to only 11 points from April 1 to June 21, the day the fourth surge began. Florida’s percentage increased 24 points in the months before the surge and only 16 percent during. The state had a higher vaccination rate at the outset than other states, but that was probably inflated in part by winter residents of the state.
DeSantis also recently appointed a new state surgeon general who has actively tried to undermine confidence in vaccines. That official, Joseph Ladapo, visited the office of a state senator last week. When asked to wear a mask because the senator is being treated for cancer, he refused. At another point last month, DeSantis participated in a news conference where speakers implied that the vaccine could be deadly or that it could “change your RNA.” DeSantis later claimed not to have heard them.
Again, the situation here is not complicated. DeSantis would like to win reelection next year and, after only narrowly winning in 2018, wants to ensure that the state’s Republican electorate is energetically behind him. What’s more, he has clear designs on the Republican nomination in 2024, meaning that keeping a high-profile with Republicans nationally is in his political interests. So he’s staked out this position of squishy contrarianism, nodding at the Trumpworld hostility to vaccines while formally endorsing the practice through surrogates.
If this sounds familiar, it should. For a certain group of Republican politicians (that includes Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin) this is seen as the smartest play in the moment. Cozy up to and energize Trump’s base with signals you know they’ll hear while still presenting a sober face to the broader public. Stoke the passion of the hard-right while keeping open a door to the moderate middle. It is, in fact, the way that Republicans have dealt with Trump for the past six years.
There is a downside, of course. By embracing a category of police officers defined by having rejected the requirements of their jobs, he’s saying that vaccination isn’t particularly important. By appointing a surgeon general who amplifies unfounded concerns about the safety of vaccines, he’s reinforcing that those shots are something to fear. And by encouraging these sentiments, he’s also increasing the likelihood that Republicans in his state and elsewhere won’t get vaccinated — a decision that cost an estimated 90,000 lives nationally from June through September.
Over those four months, about 17,500 people died in Florida alone.
Update: Answering a question from a reporter on Monday, DeSantis denied that he’d encouraged unvaccinated officers to come to Florida with that $5,000 bonus.
“We all know corporate media lies," he said. “They do not tell the truth. Assume what they tell you is false.”
Here’s what DeSantis told Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo on Sunday:
“In Florida, our policy is very clear. We’re going to have a special session, and we’re going to say: nobody should lose their job based off these injections. It’s a choice you can make. But we want to make sure we’re protecting your jobs and your livelihoods. ...”“I can tell you, Maria, in Florida, not only are we going to want to protect the law enforcement and all the jobs. We’re actually actively working to recruit out-of-state law enforcement, because we do have needs in our police and our sheriff’s departments.”“So, in the next legislative session, I’m going to hopefully sign legislation that gives a $5,000 bonus to any out-of-state law enforcement that relocates in Florida. So, NYPD, Minneapolis, Seattle, if you’re not being treated well, we will treat you better here.”
This, too, is a subtle distinction.