“Dictator” is a word both Democrats vying for governor in Florida have used lately to describe the man they want to replace in 2022: Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis’ unabashed, unwavering approach to the pandemic has become the focal point of the campaigns of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in the weeks since Florida once again became the epicenter for the country’s coronavirus outbreaks. Fried recently accused DeSantis of catering to the “radical right” with his less restrictive pandemic policies. Crist called for “common sense” in a new campaign ad taking aim at DeSantis over masks.
“We need to do what’s right,” Crist said.
But unlike DeSantis — who is vocal about where he stands on mask mandates, government shutdowns and vaccine requirements — Fried and Crist have offered less clarity on how they would have tackled a public health crisis that has challenged state leaders across the country. Their websites so far do not include literature on their pandemic policies.
The Tampa Bay Times asked the two prospective Democratic nominees to address many of the contentious decisions that governors have faced in the months leading up to and through this most recent wave of coronavirus cases. Their responses touched on policies surrounding masks, vaccines and government shutdowns. In some cases they side with DeSantis but reject his managerial style; at other times, they are at odds with each other.
This week, Fried and Crist came out in support of parents, teachers and students who are fighting DeSantis over his threats to go after school leaders that require masks in classrooms.
Fried and Crist both said they would leave masking requirement decisions to local school districts.
“They were elected by the people in their community and best know the needs of the students,” Fried said.
That position is somewhat at odds with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends “universal indoor masking by all students” in K-12 schools because the delta variant is so contagious. At least a dozen states are requiring masks in schools.
The State Board of Education has banned masked mandates in schools, but some districts, including in Broward and Hillsborough counties, have adopted them anyway, setting up a showdown with the Republican administration. DeSantis has contended there isn’t scientific support for masking young children, and he has suggested they can be harmful to kids.
Crist said DeSantis’ stance is “making schools empty,” noting the number of kids already in quarantine due to exposures in their classrooms.
With the delta virus rapidly spreading, states like Louisiana and Nevada brought back statewide mask mandates for indoor spaces. Others, including Illinois and California, are requiring the unvaccinated to mask up.
That’s not happening in Florida. DeSantis rejected mask orders from the start of the pandemic, and this spring he signed a bill and an executive order that prevents city and county leaders from taking measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as local mask mandates. He remains adamant that masks should be a personal choice.
Crist didn’t say if he supported statewide or local mask mandates, but said he would “empower (local officials) as they craft public health policy that responds directly to the rate of spread and hospitalization rates in the region they serve.”
Fried said she would “encourage local governments to enact mask orders if they felt it was the best interest of their community’s public health and safety. I have done so in my own agency.”
When it comes to mandating vaccines for some people, Crist and Fried are split.
Crist has publicly urged Florida to follow the lead of the White House and require government employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or face weekly COVID-19 testing. Several states, including North Carolina, New Jersey and New York, have taken such action. DeSantis has rejected those calls.
“Government has an obligation to also act responsibly to protect state workers and the millions of Floridians they interact with every day,” Crist said, adding that he has required his campaign staff to get the shot.
Fried wouldn’t take that step, she said, but would encourage state workers to get vaccinated through “bonuses, additional paid time off, or other workplace incentives.”
Where Crist and Fried differ greatly with DeSantis, they said, is style. Both have accused DeSantis of not doing enough to promote vaccination as the best way to slow the spread of the virus and prevent hospitalization. (DeSantis has repeatedly said he believes vaccines are effective and has encouraged anyone who wants a vaccine to get one.)
Fried said she would have attempted a vaccine lottery that awarded cash prizes to the newly inoculated — a popular tactic deployed by Democratic and Republican governors throughout the country — and “would also have created a public awareness campaign to partner with local officials, athletes, celebrities, and other well-known figures to encourage more Floridians to get the vaccine.” DeSantis has dismissed vaccine lotteries as ineffective.
Crist did not directly address a vaccine lottery. He said DeSantis’ frequent attacks on public health experts undermined the effort to get shots into arms, and said he would “continue to use my position to amplify the importance of vaccination.”
DeSantis closed down schools and forced many businesses to shutter during the early days of the pandemic. When a wave of new cases and deaths hit Florida last summer, he shut down bars for a second time. Never again, he has since said.
Fried and Crist agree.
“We cannot go back to lockdowns and we must do everything we can to keep schools open,” Crist said.
Fried said she would not shut down businesses, nor would she allow local governments to do so. She would have, however, declared a state of emergency “immediately,” she said, that would once again give the governor broad powers to address the pandemic through spending, mandates and waiving rules.
Previous emergency orders signed by DeSantis, which have since expired, waived rules that prohibited out-of-state doctors and nurses from helping with staffing shortages. The orders also mandated regular testing of workers at senior living facilities and nursing homes.
Crist did not say if he would declare a state of emergency now.
Unlike DeSantis, neither Crist nor Fried would stand in the way of businesses that want to require customers to provide proof of vaccination, they said.
“If a business wanted to take action to protect their staff and customers from COVID, they should be able to,” Fried told the Times.
A new poll from Florida Atlantic University found that seven in 10 Floridians support vaccine requirements to travel and that most think it’s okay for sporting venues and restaurants to ask their customers for proof of vaccination, too.
DeSantis and the Republican-controlled legislature banned so-called vaccine passports this year, preventing stores, restaurants or concert venues from requiring a shot to gain entrance. The state is now engaged in an acrimonious legal war with Norwegian Cruise Line over the company’s vaccination policy.