Florida’s Republican Governor Ron Desantis is back in the news, after 60 Minutes alleged that Desantis steered the state to partner with the supermarket chain Publix for COVID-19 vaccinations. The story goes that Desantis chose Publix because of nearly $200,000 in contributions to his political action committee from the chain and people with close ties to it.
Desantis denies this, and in a Trump-like move, is turning the tables to attack the media for what he calls a “false narrative.”
Though this may sound like a regional spat, how it plays out matters a great deal both for Desantis and for the entire country. That’s because Desantis (who just came in second place to Donald Trump among Republicans at the CPAC conference when asked who they want their nominee to be in 2024) is likely to be a top contender for the Presidency, and his handling of COVID-19 is going to be a key part of his early pitch to voters.
I’ve been in Florida for the second half of the pandemic, since November 2020, and here are some key takeaways.
It’s not just the Publix story that has led to allegations that Desantis is playing favorites with vaccine distribution.
It’s also the wealthy enclave of Ocean Reef on Key Largo, which got access to more than a thousand vaccine doses back in January. Ocean Reef is home to many Republican donors, including former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who donated $250,000 to Desantis’ campaign committee.
There was also a three-day event in Manatee County in February where only residents of a wealthy community were allowed to get vaccinated. After a public uproar, text messages emerged showing a County Commissioner there was in conversation with a developer who is an ally of the Governor. The developer suggested that Desantis may show up to the event and it would give him good exposure for his re-election bid next year.
And don’t forget The Villages, a senior community that is at the top of the list for any Republican seeking higher office. Desantis held a press conference there in early February to announce he was sending more doses to The Villages so that a vaccination site could be re-opened after it ran out of vaccine. As of this week, Sumter County, home to The Villages, has vaccinated a higher percentage of its residents than any county in Florida. 46 percent of all residents have been fully vaccinated — twice the level seen in the Democratic strongholds of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.
In each of these cases, when pressed, Desantis dismissed the criticism. He called it “fake,” “nonsense,” or a “false narrative.” But he has yet to prove that there was no favoritism, and the evidence appears to indicate that there has been. He will need to answer these questions at some point if he has his eyes on the White House.
Desantis can legitimately claim credit for striking a balance between COVID safety and keeping businesses open.
There have been no statewide COVID restrictions on businesses, like restaurants and bars, since September. That’s not to say there have been no restrictions. Supermarkets tell you that masks are required, and most everyone wears one. Restaurant workers are wearing masks for the most part, too, and most patrons want to sit outside. Where I’ve been, in Collier County, it’s easy to get an indoor table at a restaurant (no, thanks) but getting one outside regularly requires a wait of more than an hour.
Schools have been open for in-person learning and the parents I’ve spoken with are pretty happy about it. The kids are wearing masks in the classrooms and even on the playground.
Governor Desantis touts this as evidence that he has taken a Republican approach to the pandemic and it has worked. But as Derek Thompson points out in The Atlantic, the results have been pretty average in Florida. It’s not experiencing an economic boom or an economic disaster, compared with other states.
And it’s not as if no one has gotten sick or died. Florida has already recorded more than 33,000 deaths from COVID, and some think that’s an undercount. But the fact is, it’s no worse than other states that have put in place severe restrictions. 50,000 have died in New York, which has a slightly smaller population than Florida.
Still, the economic and mental health effects of COVID restrictions are real, and Desantis has certainly put them at the top of his priority list.
Florida has gotten lucky because of the weather
Desantis may take credit for the lack of restrictions in Florida, but he owes a lot to the state’s weather. Throughout the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic (November 2020-January 2021), Florida was in the midst of its most comfortable season. Temperatures in the densely-populated southern part of the state have been in the 70s and 80s. Just right for doing most things outside, or at the very least leaving the doors and windows open, which means less opportunity to pass the virus from person to person. Just as the pandemic eased in most of the country during the summer of 2020, it eased in Florida during the winter.
The question now is whether Florida will be able to vaccinate everyone before it gets so hot that people in the state move inside again for the summer. Floridians are certainly trying to get their shots. I tried to sign up at exactly 7am one day last week, when Publix released some new appointments. They were all gone by 7:15.