St. Petersburg, Florida (CNN)After a year of criticism by health experts, mockery from comedians and blistering critiques from political rivals, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is standing unabashedly tall among the nation’s governors on the front lines of the coronavirus fight.
“Everyone told me I was wrong,” DeSantis, a Republican, said in a fundraising appeal on Tuesday, drawing attention to his defiance against the pandemic. “I faced continued pressure from radical Democrats and the liberal media, but I refused to back down. It’s clear: Florida got it right.”
As many parts of the country embark on an uneasy march toward normalcy, Florida is not only back in business — it’s been in business for the better part of the past year. DeSantis’ gamble to take a laissez faire approach appears to be paying off — at least politically, at least for now, as other governors capturing attention in the opening phase of the pandemic now face steeper challenges.
Despite far fewer rules and restrictions, Florida lands nearly in the middle of all states on a variety of coronavirus metrics. The state has had about 3% more Covid-19 cases per capita than the US overall, but about 8% fewer deaths per capita. More than 32,000 Floridians have died of Covid-19, and the state’s per capita death rate ranks 24th in the nation.
“Those lockdowns have not worked. They’ve done great damage to our country,” DeSantis said Tuesday at a news conference in Tallahassee. “We can never let something like this happen again. Florida took a different path. We’ve had more success as a result.”
DeSantis — who, at 42, is the nation’s youngest governor — is standing out among his peers and seizing upon what he and his supporters believe is a vindication for their policies.
Lockdowns and school openings are suddenly a new measure for voters to hold governors and other elected officials accountable, a sign that the politics of the pandemic could open an uncertain chapter for many holding public office. He will be among the governors putting his record to the test when he runs for re-election next year.
“We still have millions of kids across this country who are denied access to in-person education,” DeSantis said at the news conference. “We still have businesses closed in many parts of this country. We have millions and millions of lives destroyed.”
With spring on the horizon, DeSantis suddenly appears to be in a position of strength compared to some of his fellow governors, including many of whom took far more restrictive approaches to the fight against coronavirus that caused a trickle-down effect on the economy.
He is not facing a potential recall like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, under investigation like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or being second-guessed for lifting a statewide mask mandate like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
DeSantis refused to implement a mask mandate in the first place, making him an outlier a year ago. At the time, he was hewing closely to President Donald Trump’s playbook, which he argued at the time was good for business.
The unemployment rate in Florida is 4.8 %, according to the latest figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 6.8% in Texas, 8.8% in New York and 9% in California.
“If you look at what’s happening in South Florida right now, I mean this place is booming. It would not be booming if it was shut down,” DeSantis said last month as a crush of tourists began arriving. “Los Angeles isn’t booming. New York City’s not booming. It’s booming here because you can live like a human being.”
Florida has recorded about 9,204 cases per 100,000 people and about 150 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. Across the country overall, there have been about 8,969 cases per 100,000 people and 163 deaths per 100,000 people.
Despite far more stringent restrictions, California only ranks one spot better than Florida in both measures. Its death rate is about 5% lower than Florida’s, which means about 1,500 lives could have been saved in Florida if the state’s death rate matched that of California.
Still, comparing one state to another is complicated and often counterproductive, said Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health who maintains his own Covid dashboard. For example, he said, the humidity of Florida and the density of New York City offer entirely different scenarios for fighting coronavirus.
“What I’d love to ask about Florida is, if we had done things differently in Florida, what would it have looked like?” Salemi told CNN. “If you use those metrics of where Florida is relative to a lot of other states, we’re looking middle of the pack. So no, it hasn’t been a disaster in that we’re leading in mortality per capita in cases per capita.”
He added: “It’s not always about doing well relative to your peers. It’s how can we prevent as much morbidity and mortality from the virus while keeping an eye on what’s happening with our economy.”
He said Florida has also benefitted from local ordinances requiring masks and restricting the sizes of gatherings. DeSantis has prohibited cities and counties from fining people for refusing to wear masks and is stirring outrage among local officials by pushing to strip their authority to put such rules in place at all.
Throughout the pandemic, it’s that defiant and often combative DeSantis who has increasingly become the darling of Republicans. He declines most interview requests, including from CNN, even as he frequently appears on Fox News and other propaganda platforms. He has been locked in one fight after another with the state’s media over transparency on Covid statistics and other issues.
Yet his policies have boosted his standing inside his party, all but certainly closing the door to any Republican challenges. Potential Democratic contenders are already circling.
Rep. Charlie Crist — who served as Republican governor of the state from 2007 to 2011 and switched parties in 2012 — is among the Democrats thinking about challenging DeSantis for re-election next year. He said he intended to make up his mind before summer.
Asked how he thought Florida had withstood the pandemic, Crist said: “It’s a mixed bag, to be candid.”
“We have a light at the end of the tunnel feeling and that really is a godsend,” Crist told CNN in an interview in his office here. “On the other hand, there’s about 33,000 of my fellow Floridians that are dead now. And that’s incredibly sad, tragic and beyond unfortunate. So how are we doing? Well, we’re slugging through it like the rest of the country is and just doing the best we can.”
Crist and other Florida Democrats are calling for a US Justice Department investigation into whether DeSantis gave preference to donors after invitation-only vaccines clinics were set up in at least two upscale communities. The exclusive Covid-19 clinics allowed about 6,000 people to jump ahead of tens of thousands of seniors on waitlists in Manatee and Charlotte counties, where the drives happened.
“Was there preference given to certain Caucasian wealthy, Republican communities?” Crist said. “Because it certainly looks like it.”
A spokeswoman for the governor has dismissed the accusation, saying: “The insinuation that politics play into vaccine distribution in Florida is baseless and ridiculous.”
Here in Florida, where beaches along the Atlantic Ocean and on Gulf of Mexico are crowded this week in ways not seen for more than a year, the complete story of the pandemic has yet to be written, as President Joe Biden inherits the challenge and has accelerated vaccines here and across the country. Yet health experts and local officials worry that a parade of spring break vacationers could contribute to a spike in Covid-19 cases.
Tom Golden, who owns a restaurant and bar along the busy stretch of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg, said he didn’t have much of an opinion on DeSantis a year ago. But with his business not only surviving, but thriving, he offers a measure of credit to the governor.
“When he went into office, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Golden said in an interview just before lunch on a sunny morning this week. “But he didn’t do anything to hurt me as a business owner or me as a Floridian. So fine with me.”
After businesses were allowed to open after being shuttered for several weeks late last spring, Golden said he recalls having mixed feelings about the balancing act of keeping the economy alive and protecting the public’s health.
“Well, of course, as a business owner I supported it, but as a human being, I kept thinking that it’s a horrible position to be in,” Golden said. “It’s a hard one to measure. I think he made a good decision.”
Conversations with more than a dozen Floridians offered a wide assessment of views about DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus crisis. Several people suggested they were not initially supportive him, but in hindsight found themselves approving of his decision to reopen the economy and schools.
A woman strolling down the St. Petersburg Pier spoke about her grandchildren in California, who have attended school virtually for the last year. She said she believes the Florida approach was better, given the temperate weather and ability to be outside. She declined to be identified by name, but praised DeSantis’ decisions that have allowed the orchestra to resume playing here and the economy to thrive.
Molly Minton, who works as a laboratory supervisor, said she recalls being dispirited as she drove home from work and saw crowded bars and restaurants. Looking back, she said, she is glad many small businesses were able to stay open and believes Florida was simply lucky in many respects.
“I think he took a gamble and it worked out,” Minton said of the governor.
In a sprawling state of more than 21 million people, where some estimates say about 1,000 new residents arrive every day, many people said they had no opinion of DeSantis at all and didn’t know much about him.
He was born in Jacksonville and raised on the Gulf Coast just north of here in Dunedin, and he had a love for baseball that sent his team to the Little League World Series. Later, he played outfield while studying at Yale. He graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a Naval prosecutor, including a stint in Iraq as a Navy JAG lawyer advising a SEAL team.
In 2012, he won a seat in Congress and was elected governor in 2018 two months after he turned 40. He was largely unknown during the primary campaign until he won the endorsement of Trump, who became aware of him through frequent appearances on Fox News.
Now, DeSantis is seen by many grassroots conservatives as a potential 2024 presidential candidate. That path depends on his gubernatorial reelection next year.
His long-range future, of course, also depends on the outcome of the rest of the pandemic. Yet it’s clear he hopes to make that his new calling card, which he telegraphed in a fundraising appeal for Republican governors that he sent to supporters on Tuesday.
“Right now,” DeSantis wrote, “my state of Florida is one of the only states that said no to oppressive lockdowns and has become an oasis of freedom for Americans.”