Florida’s Republican leadership — and by proxy, President Donald Trump — were again front and center Wednesday at a campaign event for former Vice President Joe Biden as his campaign continued its online march to the Democratic nomination for president.
From his modified basement studio in his Delaware home, Biden attended a virtual town hall featuring workers across the country struggling to continue with “front line” jobs that require them to go to work in person regardless of personal protection from the novel coronavirus.
“All across the nation, it’s so often our lowest-paid workers who have to step up during a crisis,” Biden said.
But the event began with an introduction by guest host Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones that was heavy on criticism of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision-making during the crisis.
“Florida, we’re not in good shape,” said Jones, a Democrat and Biden campaign surrogate. “We have a leadership that took weeks to issue a shelter-in-place order after you and many other Democrats urged him to do so. We have [Florida U.S.] Sen. Rick Scott and other Republicans who created an unemployment system designed to be so difficult that people would stop pursuing their benefits.”
Jones, who represents a majority-black Broward County district, said his constituents “are choosing between paying for food, paying utilities and paying for insulin.” He noted that food giveaways have attracted thousands, and mentioned that DeSantis has paused evictions as the state’s beleaguered unemployment website and office have struggled to field hundreds of thousands of claims in the wake of widespread layoffs.
“Your characterization of what’s happened is absolutely correct, particularly the actions of your governor,” Biden responded. “The fact that this president has not had any sense of empathy or concern. There’s just a lot going on.”
DeSantis, a key Trump ally whose response to the COVID-19 crisis has closely resembled the president’s, has taken shots from Biden before. A week before DeSantis issued a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses on April 1, Biden criticized the governor for not leading a “science-based response.”
More than 600 people have died in the state due to COVID-19 so far, according to state reports. But DeSantis has worked with local and federal authorities to build hundreds of emergency hospital beds in case of a surge in cases, and Trump and the Republican National Committee have held up Florida as a model.
On Wednesday, the RNC praised DeSantis for working closely with Trump to bring another 1 million N95 respirator masks and reams of face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer and gowns to the state by Thursday morning.
“At every turn, Gov. DeSantis has worked closely with President Trump, providing effective leadership to protect the health and safety of Floridians,” Gates McGavick, Florida press secretary for the RNC, wrote in an email.
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A spokesman for Scott, who was governor of Florida at the time that the state contracted with the vendor to build the state’s broken unemployment system, disputed Jones’ characterization of a system designed to fail. “Obviously, that statement is false,” said spokesman Chris Hartline.
Biden’s campaign event Wednesday was intended to highlight the plight of the blue-collar workers whose jobs as bus drivers and grocery store clerks put them at higher risk of infection.
Safaa Elzakzoky, a meat processing worker from Hatfield, Pa., said a friend who also works at the plant died “because there are no regulations” to protect employees. Jerry Brown, a paratransit bus driver in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he, too, lost a co-worker. He said he’s worried that he’ll contract COVID-19, or infect his family or his passengers, who largely have underlying conditions and are at greater risk of dying if they become sick with the virus.
Government workers in Miami-Dade County have raised alarms about shortages of masks and other protective supplies, often referred to as PPE. Jeffery Mitchell, president of the county’s transit union, told the Miami Herald Wednesday that supplies are running out and some Metro Mover operators have been working without masks.
During the town hall, Biden, adding that he drove a school bus to help pay the bills while studying law, blamed the risks on “a failure of leadership from the president.”
“This is a human crisis above all. But it’s also a failure of supply, logistics and distribution,” he said. “The president says he’s the commander in chief, he’s in a war. Well, my Lord, take care of the front line workers.”
Trump’s campaign responded Wednesday by noting that, during the event, Biden referred to the disease caused by novel coronavirus as “COVID-9.”
“Joe Biden masquerades as the guy with all the answers on the coronavirus,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “But then he demonstrates quite clearly that he has no idea what he’s talking about.”
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.
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