If 2020 were a play, Florida would have reached Act 2 of the COVID-19 drama. It’s disturbingly like Act 1.
Cases are surging, people are waiting hours to get tested and Ron DeSantis doesn’t appear up to the job.
Actually, he hasn’t appeared much of anywhere lately. DeSantis has adopted a basement strategy since the election, retreating to the governor’s mansion and avoiding most interviews.
No doubt, he’s had an exhausting year, and is disappointed by the defeat of his political benefactor, Donald Trump. But this is not the time to go underground.
With the holidays bearing down, it’s time for DeSantis to be preaching caution. It’s time to stop hiding data. It’s time to start treating local officials like allies, not enemies.
It’s time to consider reinstituting restrictions on public gatherings. We’re not talking about another lockdown, but too many people are acting as if COVID-19 has magically disappeared.
And it’s way past time for DeSantis to order a statewide mask mandate, as governors in other conservative states have recently done. But who are we kidding?
It’s apparent the governor has an incurable case of, for lack of a better term, Desantis-itis. The symptoms are muddled messaging, secrecy, excessive sugarcoating and a lack of command.
To be fair, Florida is in better shape than many states. It’s third in total cases, which matches its population ranking. It’s sixth in hospitalizations and 14th in deaths per 100,000 cases.
But the past eight months have been a testament to how things can deteriorate in a hurry. DeSantis has a bully pulpit. He should be using it daily to raise awareness of simple things the Centers for Disease Control recommends, like keeping gatherings small and eating outside if possible.
Then there are the big things, like working with local governments. An easy way to do that is by sharing the weekly reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
The Nov. 15 report noted that more than 80% of Florida counties have moderate to high levels of community transmission. It described the spread across the nation as “aggressive, unrelenting, expanding … reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather, further deterioration.”
You’re lucky to have read those words.
The DeSantis administration has refused to make the weekly reports public and slow-walked all records requests. The Sentinel had to obtain the Nov. 15 report through a third party. Getting another report required intervention by newspaper lawyers.
It’s bad enough to hide data and White House recommendations from the public. DeSantis wasn’t even sharing the reports with county officials until last week.
Those relationships have been spotty from the pandemic’s start. DeSantis initially deferred to communities on stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. He noted how a Miami-Dade County is nothing like a Madison County and local leaders best know their needs.
In early September, DeSantis’ office sent letters to 67 counties asking what their restrictions were.
“I hope that the governor’s intent is not to further diminish the authority of local governments,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said.
A couple of weeks later, DeSantis prohibited cities and counties from enacting their own shutdowns or enforcing mask mandates. So much for the wisdom of home rule.
Tired of having their hands cuffed, five frustrated mayors held a virtual news conference last week. They urged the governor to restore their COVID-19 autonomy, beef up contract tracing, restore state testing facilities to full capacity and enact a statewide mask mandate.
Again, good luck with that last one.
DeSantis went full Trump during the election season when it came to masks and social distancing. He embraced Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump’s coronavirus confidant who’s has pushed the dubious theory that herd immunity will cure the pandemic.
At least Atlas has a medical degree. The Florida Office of Policy and Budget hired a former sports blogger/Uber driver from Ohio as a data analyst for state issues, including COVID-19 statistics.
“Fact is, I’m not an ‘expert.’ I’m not a doctor, epidemiologist, virologist or scientist,” Kyle Lamb wrote on his internet site. “I also don’t need to be. Experts don’t have all the answers.”
This sterling addition to the state payroll fits DeSantis’ hiring model. The Department of Health has undergone a leadership shake-up and is telling county public information officers not to speak with reporters about case surges, the holidays and mitigating the spread.
Such information is supposed to only come out of Tallahassee, where DeSantis is currently on COVID hiatus. He did release a five-minute video message last week touting the expected arrival of vaccines before the end of the year.
That will hopefully be the final act in this pandemic nightmare. It’s been uniquely demanding on leaders, who’ve usually had to choose between only bad options.
Mistakes were inevitable, but one mark of leadership is the ability to learn from your mistakes. On that count, Florida’s Act 2 looks far too much like Act 1.
When the state knocked on DeSantis’ door, too often there’s been nobody home.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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