TALLAHASSEE — From New York to Ohio to California, the nation’s governors are leading the way during the coronavirus crisis, using their offices to provide residents with consistent messages that promote public safety.
Then there’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A month into an international pandemic, the leader of the nation’s third-largest state has confounded with conflicting orders. DeSantis has made erroneous claims — like on Thursday when he suggested no one under the age of 25 has died from the coronavirus in the United States. He has pushed unproven medical cures while dismissing advice from health experts. He has shared wrong information, potentially affecting millions of people, that went uncorrected for hours.
Unlike other governors, DeSantis doesn’t hold regular public briefings. He has ceded the biggest decisions, like whether to close beaches, to city and county officials, yet he hasn’t talked to many of them. Early on, he clashed with federal officials over whether Florida had community spread of the virus.
DeSantis’ uneven response has made him an outlier among his counterparts across the country. The approval ratings of most governors have soared during the crisis. DeSantis, one of America’s most popular governors a few months ago, has seen his support plummet. One poll found him the third-worst rated governor at handling the coronavirus in the country.
The crisis has revived memories of DeSantis in the weeks following his 2018 victory in the Republican primary. Then just a congressional back-bencher carried to victory almost solely behind the endorsement of President Donald Trump, DeSantis’ wobbly campaign appeared in trouble before getting rescued by experienced political advisers.
DeSantis has since pushed out those advisers, and it’s unclear who is now guiding him through this crisis. One would expect he’d rely heavily on Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, the state’s top public health official, for advice. But Rivkees, according to a DeSantis spokeswoman, didn’t weigh in either way on whether to shut down the state. DeSantis’ wife and closest confidant, Casey, recently delivered the couple’s third child.
In a lengthy statement, spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said DeSantis and his management team are in constant contact with leaders across communities, industries and professions. She defended the administration’s coronavirus response as “measured, targeted, and focused” and said information has been “timely and transparent."
“Those critical of Florida’s data-driven approach to mitigate and repel COVID-19 perhaps do not understand the science, respect local leaders’ ability to make appropriate decisions for their communities or are using this crisis for political purposes,” Ferré said. “Regardless, Florida is prepared for the challenges that may await.”
Mayors, former governors and observers from both parties have been reluctant to criticize DeSantis, acknowledging that he’s facing a unique global crisis that has killed nearly 19,000 Americans already. Some still point out the unsettling lack of clarity.
“The communications coming out of his office have been very strange.” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. “And it’s hard to get answers from his staff. It has just been a very stilted response.”
DeSantis’ directives include:
- On March 9, his Department of Health issued a sweeping advisory that anybody traveling from abroad must self-isolate for 14 days. The department later clarified that it only applies to people from coronavirus-affected countries.
- On March 12, DeSantis said “mass gatherings” in the state were canceled, but he didn’t define how many people made up a “mass gathering.”
- On March 30, he announced that South Florida’s more than 6 million residents must stay at home until mid-May. The order was actually until mid-April, but it wasn’t corrected by him or his office for another three and a half hours. By then, the error had been publicized by nearly every major news outlet in the state and by DeSantis’ own Republican Party of Florida.
None of his orders have been more confusing than his most important one: the April 1 directive to effectively shut down the state.
Though he lagged days behind 33 states, DeSantis’ order appeared rushed, coming soon after the White House urged 30 more days of social distancing. The directive seemed to say that senior citizens and seriously ill people couldn’t leave their homes at all. It took two days for DeSantis’ office to clarify that this wasn’t the case.
Nor did the order spell out which “essential” services could remain open. Instead, officials, businesses and residents have been forced to decipher 29 pages of guidelines tacked onto the order from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Miami-Dade County.
Five hours later, DeSantis quietly signed a second executive order that appeared to override restrictions local governments had put in place to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But when asked the next day about the amendment, DeSantis claimed the order did the opposite.
Local officials were flummoxed. Cities have applied the orders unevenly across the state, not knowing whether to believe the words on the page or the ones coming out of the governor’s mouth.
“People are having such a hard time with this,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said this week. “People are looking for a list of what is nonessential in the governor’s order. It does not exist.”
Some city officials are marching ahead, no longer waiting for direction from DeSantis.
“We’re just not spending a lot of time on trying to pick that apart and decipher it,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said.
Meanwhile, local leaders can’t get the governor on the phone. DeSantis has not spoken to Castor since March 2 when he arrived in Hillsborough County to announce the first coronavirus cases in Florida, which was a day after the state learned about them.
DeSantis hasn’t talked to Kriseman or Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer either, they said. DeSantis is participating in regular conference calls that Vice President Mike Pence holds with governors across the country, but he hasn’t done the same with Florida mayors.
Ferré said DeSantis has talked to mayors, “particularly in the areas of greatest impact such as South Florida.”
“I do find it remarkable that the governor has not had a statewide conference call with mayors and county officials,” said Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, a former Orlando police chief who has vast experience working with past governors during emergencies.
Mayors and county leaders have instead worked across jurisdictions to coordinate their own response, relying on state help only when necessary. Tampa and its local hospitals, for instance, created a drive-thru testing site at Raymond James Stadium after it became clear DeSantis didn’t have one planned for Tampa Bay.
DeSantis’ predecessor as governor, Rick Scott, maintained frequent contact with mayors during crises like hurricanes and mass shootings. Now a U.S. senator, Scott has spoken often with Castor and other local leaders. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio recently hosted a conference call with mayors of Florida’s biggest cities and others.
“(Rick Scott) and I didn’t agree on a whole lot of things, but he always picked up the phone and called during a crisis,” Kriseman said. “And, he always said the same thing: ‘If you need anything, you have my number, don’t hesitate to use it.’ ”
Scott, a fellow Republican, called the lack of information coming from DeSantis’ administration “alarming” during a March 7 interview. Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, also a Republican, said March 12 on Twitter he was “disappointed” that he learned of his city’s first positive coronavirus test from the news, not the state Department of Health that DeSantis oversees.
“Transparency & communication is the way forward for our citizens,” Curry tweeted.
Other governors appear to have found their stride while navigating through the coronavirus, often using their massive platforms to spread clear and deliberate messages.
Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio, who was one of the first governors to order a statewide shutdown, hosts regular 2 p.m. news conferences that his growing fan base calls “Wine with DeWine.” His head of public health regularly attends to explain coronavirus numbers, and she has more than 100,000 fans on Facebook.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s blunt daily briefings have gained a national audience and praise even from some Republicans in Florida. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has enlisted celebrities, including “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, to urge Californians to stay home. Colorado Gov. Jared Pollis hosted a virtual town hall for his residents. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has candidly criticized the federal response.
By contrast, DeSantis’ briefings are irregular in frequency and substance. Some days, he doesn’t have them. Sometimes, the briefings are announced the minute he holds them, preventing reporters from attending or members of the public from watching. His spokeswoman’s decision to exclude a Times/Herald reporter from one briefing — and give conflicting reasons for it — led to criticism that distracted from that day’s messaging.
The news conferences provide few answers about the most pressing health challenges facing the state or the tens of thousands of unemployed residents seeking help. On Tuesday, DeSantis dedicated most of a news conference to his efforts to secure shipments of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that Trump often touts as a coronavirus remedy despite unproven findings. That same day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed from its website guidance telling doctors how to prescribe and treat COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine.
During Wednesday’s briefing, images of DeSantis went viral after he wore a medical glove on one hand and touched his face with the other. Ferré declined to explain why he did this.
No other state official has filled the void. The state’s two top health officials, Rivkees and Mary Mayhew, the secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, haven’t been seen or heard from regularly since the first few weeks of the outbreak. Both have given briefings to the Florida Chamber of Commerce in that time, according to the Chamber’s emails, but members of Florida’s congressional delegation said this week they’ve also been asking to speak with them, to no avail.
Ferré said Rivkees and Mayhew “have enormous responsibilities handling this public health crisis and their communications directors are handling all inquiries.”
A recent national survey asked Americans how their governors were responding to the coronavirus outbreak. DeWine, with an 85 percent approval rating, scored the highest and the average governor received high marks from 72 percent of residents. DeSantis was at 53 percent, ahead of only Missouri and Arizona.
By his own admission, DeSantis doesn’t have a great track record navigating an outbreak. During his 2018 campaign, DeSantis said that when he served in Congress, his biggest mistake was doubting President Barack Obama’s handling of the Ebola outbreak. DeSantis said he erred in not listening to Obama’s public health experts.
“I’m totally willing to just be honest and if I call it wrong, just admit you were wrong,” DeSantis said at the time. “People appreciate that because we’re going to make mistakes in this line of work, that’s just the bottom line.”
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