TALLAHASSEE — While New York, California and other states shutter their economies to keep the coronavirus at bay, Gov. Ron DeSantis is refusing to follow the herd.
His cure-can’t-be-worse-than-the-disease approach has put the Republican governor under a glaring spotlight locally and nationally as cases of the virus in Florida surge past 1,400. It’s a philosophy that aligns DeSantis with other conservatives, including President Donald Trump and Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Republican with a strong libertarian bent.
On Tuesday, state Senate Democrats began papering the governor’s office with letters urging him to issue a shelter-in-place order.
“That is the dumbest s— I have heard in a long time,” said state Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens). “This is a day-by-day crisis. Italy damn near saw 1,000 people die in one day, and there are people proclaiming we got this and have it solved in 15 days?”
DeSantis has grown only more defiant. On Monday, instead of buckling to political pressure to issue a shelter-in-place order, he said he would restrict visitors coming into the state from coronavirus hot spots including New York. And he’s now literally ignoring pleas from Florida Democrats to be more aggressive.
Nearly 20 governors across the state have issued some form of a stay-at-home order. DeSantis, by contrast, has taken a more piecemeal approach, shut down parks, movie theaters, gyms and most businesses and some beaches. He‘s waived work requirements for federal assistance. DeSantis has also asked the Trump administration for a major disaster declaration, a move supported by Florida GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.
But he also has overtly pushed back against a broad shelter-in-place order. Instead, on Monday he announced that anyone flying from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut to Florida would have to undergo a 14 day self-quarantine, an announcement that drew criticism from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said it was not the “most enlightened approach.”
“When you are ordering people to shelter in place, you are consigning probably hundreds-of-thousands of Floridians to lose their jobs,” DeSantis said Monday in remarks live streamed from the governor’s office. “You are throwing their lives into potential disarray.”
In Florida, the push for a statewide shelter-in-place order has been led by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s only statewide elected Democrat and a member of the Cabinet. She called for a shelter-in-place order last week, but said DeSantis isn’t returning her calls or answering her questions.
“I tried to reach out a few times last week through the chief of staff just to kind of hear what their experts were telling them,” Fried told POLITICO in an interview. “Kind of like ‘talk to me, give me updates,’ but also because the Department of Agriculture has a huge responsibly in this. We need to make sure the state is fed.”
“I would have hoped for more communication out of the governor’s office,” she added.
Fried said she’s trying to strike a non-political tone, saying she is aware the governor is facing a tough balancing act.
“I do completely recognize and respect that the governor has had to face difficult choices, this is a public health crisis we have not seen in a decade,” she said.
DeSantis communications director Helen Aguirre Ferré said Cabinet liaison Beau Beaubien “is in frequent communication with all offices related to Cabinet,” including Fried’s. And the governor’s legal team, led by Joe Jacquot, speaks frequently with the Fried’s legal team.
Fried’s frustration amplifies Democrat’s own pandemic balancing act: How to criticize without politicizing.
Braynon is cognizant of perception concerns, but said feedback from Democrats such as Fried and Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo ultimately are rooted more in ideological and policy differences than brute politics.
“I don’t know that I would say the governor has been the worst at this, I’m not saying ‘we are all going to die due to Ron DeSantis,’ and I don’t think that is what Nikki or Terrie Rizzo are saying either,” Braynon said. “This is ideologically-driven based on things we think should be done to keep people save.”
“And I do think my ideology is better in that regard,” he added.
Florida Republicans are rallying around DeSantis, with members of the Legislature praising what they see as a “measured” approach rather than a rush to shut down the state and cripple its economy.
“Gov. DeSantis and his administration have done well to date,” Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) said in an interview. “He has been measured and balanced in his approach. That is necessary considering facts are changing every day. A one-size-fits-all approach might not fit here.”
Galvano said he was “comfortable” with the administration’s decision to allow local leaders to make the call to shut beaches rather than issue a statewide closure. Last week, pictures of Florida beaches packed with spring breakers who will return to college campus across the country amped up calls for a statewide closure.
“Manatee County where I am is in a different situation than Broward or Miami-Dade,” Galvano said. “I think the governor has been respecting that.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) echoed Galvano’s sentiment on Twitter.
“I fully support the balanced approach that @GovRonDeSantis is taking to #COVID-19,” Bradley tweeted. “A ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work for Florida in this situation. Floridians need to continue to practice social distancing and wash hands regularly. We can do this!”
State Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat who will be co-leader of House Democrats next session, said he is reluctant to hammer DeSantis in the middle of a crisis.
“Enough people are criticizing the governor at this point,” Jenne said. “Some is probably justified, but right now we need to get all rowing in the same direction and need to be able to communicate with agency heads in charge of response.”
That happened Sunday night, when Democrats held a conference call with Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, Department of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz, a former Democratic lawmaker, and Agency for Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Mayhew.
Moskowitz led much of the call, Jenne, said but things got tense on occasion with Rivkees, who wouldn’t give straightforward answers to questions from Democrats.
“It was not that testy, but had moments,” Jenne said. “At one point they tried to shut the call down and I had to tersely tell them that was a bad idea. To their credit, the call continued.”
Jenne said now is not the time for criticism, but he is calling for a select committee to be called in the Legislature to review the administration’s response to the coronavirus.
“To not have a select committee look at this response — both what went well and what went poorly, would, quite frankly be legislative malfeasance,” he said.