TALLAHASSEE — The reporter in St. Augustine began her question: “We saw last night Congressman John Lewis passed away. He’s a civil rights icon. You know, this is happening amidst heated conversation in this country about race, monuments, flags.”
She continued to explain the controversy about a Confederate memorial that has been a fixture in St. Augustine’s historic central plaza for 140 years. The city commission there voted 3-2 last month to remove it.
Before the reporter could finish her question on Saturday, DeSantis interrupted: “All right, yeah. I appreciate the question, but we’re trying to focus on the coronavirus. I appreciate it, but I’m going to let someone ask about — do you have a question about the topic at hand?”
John Lewis never served in Florida. Tributes to the civil rights hero, who died Friday, have been pouring in from across the state anyway.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, the conservative Republican congressman, lauded Lewis, who was brutally beaten by police and arrested numerous times in the 1960s while advocating for equal rights under the law.
“We are surely a stronger people in a better, more just nation because we had the blessing to call John Lewis our fellow American,” Gaetz tweeted.
Similar tributes were broadcast by Florida elected officials from both major parties: incoming State House Speaker Chris Sprowls; Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley; Congressman Charlie Crist; former governor and current U.S. Senator Rick Scott have all tweeted remembrances, to name a few.
Not all of the tributes went perfectly. Sen. Marco Rubio, while trying to honor Lewis, mistakenly tweeted a picture of Rep. Elijah Cummings. He has since deleted the tweet.
And he tried again.
DeSantis was asked about Lewis at an afternoon news conference in St. Augustine. He declined to answer the reporter’s question because, he said, it was off topic for a news conference about the coronavirus.
In the past, however, the governor has gone off topic at coronavirus-themed news conferences, which he holds several times per week. On May 13, in response to a reporter’s question during a news conference on COVID-19 and long-term facilities, DeSantis said he’d welcome professional sports to Florida.
But that evening, the governor sent out a tweet at 7:06 p.m. remembering the late congressman and offering his family’s condolences. DeSantis served with Lewis in Congress for three terms from 2013 to 2018.
The reporter’s question also did not distract from any coronavirus news, because DeSantis said little that was new Saturday. He reiterated talking points about how Florida has stabilized in its positive rate of cases and about how Floridians shouldn’t fear the virus so much that they refuse to seek medical treatment.
Even if the positive rate of cases has stabilized, as DeSantis contended, it remains north of 10 percent across the state, a threshold which experts say suggests the virus is still spreading. On Saturday, the state recorded 10,328 new cases, 90 deaths and a positive rate of 12 percent statewide.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ tweet about Congressman John Lewis.