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As he reopens Florida, DeSantis pushes back on early criticism

DeSantis is also seen by some Republicans as a conservative counter to Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with whom Trump has feuded publicly.

Restaurants are seating patrons for the first time in weeks. Shops are cautiously welcoming back customers. And state parks are opening their gates.

As Florida looks to rebound from the crisis wrought by the novel coronavirus, so, too, does Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Florida’s Republican governor is slowly opening the state, a month after he shut it down amid national criticism for his response to the novel coronavirus outbreak that has so far killed at least 1,399 people in Florida and infected more than 36,000.

The move isn’t without risk. Florida continues to see sickness and death, particularly in hard-hit South Florida. But after avoiding worst-case predictions in March and April, DeSantis has, in May, positioned himself as a conservative coronavirus success story.

“DeSantis right now has been able to thread that needle between overreacting and following the facts,” said Rob Schmidt, a Republican Miami-based pollster with the firm McLaughlin & Associates. “But we’re still not out of the woods yet.”

Related: Florida began reopening Monday. Is it safe?

On Monday, as DeSantis gave restaurants and shops outside of South Florida the opportunity to re-start their brick-and-mortar businesses, the state Department of Health announced 819 new coronavirus cases and 20 new deaths. And while hospitalizations in the epicenter of South Florida have leveled without threatening to overload intensive care units, epidemiologists say the virus is far from contained.

“It’s far too early for the governor to be doing a victory lap on Fox and Friends,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami.

And yet DeSantis has lately become a Fox News regular. He’d grown frustrated with ridicule over crowds on public beaches and national criticism of his administration, and went on the offense, on Sean Hannity’s show and others, to explain his strategy and communicate that — in his view — it’s working.

DeSantis has frequently criticized news reports from March detailing coronavirus forecasts that predicted Florida could see hundreds of thousands of hospitalized coronavirus patients by late April. Most of those models were created without the benefit of DeSantis’ April 1 shutdown order, which changed the trajectory of the state’s outbreak.

But DeSantis has said the state’s results have validated his decisions throughout the pandemic.

“The way Florida has approached this, even though our hospitalization and infection and fatality rates are much lower than many big states, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, we did not necessarily ‘shut everything down’” in April, DeSantis said during an appearance Sunday on the network. “I had construction going, a lot of retail that was going. I actually accelerated road projects because traffic was down ... We’re starting, I think, a little ahead of where some other states are.”

Last week, DeSantis visited the White House and announced he had more than 6,000 ventilators sitting unused. He talked about the steps his administration had taken to restrict visitors to nursing homes in March, an effort he credits with a mortality rate in Florida’s elder care facilities that — though 497 people have died — remains low in comparison to other states.

DeSantis’ access to a national television platform where he can trumpet his accomplishments isn’t just a messaging victory for himself. It’s also good news for President Donald Trump, a Florida resident who has repeatedly called on states to reopen and encouraged protestors fighting shutdown orders. To have Florida reopening successfully — if it is, indeed, successful — would give the president a potential high-profile success story in his home state, a battleground his campaign has treated as a must-win.

DeSantis also remains a close ally of the president, who helped the former Ponte Vedra congressman win the 2018 Florida Republican primary when he endorsed DeSantis on Twitter in 2017.

“Governor DeSantis has done an outstanding job,” said Brian Ballard, a Washington and Tallahassee lobbyist who is close to Trump. “And, of course, that shows the president, in basically anointing him in the primary, had good instincts, made a good choice and the people of Florida have benefited.”

Trump has regularly praised DeSantis, and vice versa. The president’s health experts lauded the expertise of Florida’s health department — after widespread anger over Jacksonville’s decision to reopen beaches in mid-April — and held up as a good example the detail of the state’s coronavirus website. When Trump played a video in the White House briefing room last month to argue that it was reporters — not Trump — who downplayed the threat of the virus early in the year, he included a clip of DeSantis saying “the president has been outstanding” during a Fox News interview.

Related: DeSantis orders investigation into Florida' broken unemployment system

“I’d say other governors should pay close attention to what Gov. DeSantis is doing and should follow,” said Karen Giorno, a political strategist and the state director for Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign.

DeSantis is also seen by some Republicans as a conservative counter to Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with whom Trump has feuded publicly. While Cuomo received national attention early on as thousands died in the Empire State in March and April, DeSantis began restricting travel to Florida from New York and criticizing some of Cuomo’s moves.

“He’s just not doing it the way Cuomo is doing it,” Helen Ferré, DeSantis’ spokeswoman, said she has told some critics. “He’s doing it the conservative way.”

Though DeSantis has for now avoided the worst-case scenario, his administration has struggled with issues including an unemployment claims system that fell apart and outbreaks in Florida prisons. And some health experts question whether Florida is reopening too quickly — a concern reflected in polls that have also shown the popular governor’s approval rating dipping.

Experts have been warning that a premature reopening risks flare-ups that will cause more spread of the virus and more death. Meanwhile, epidemiologists and nursing home operators say access to testing remains insufficient, and a number of complicated legal and financial questions remain about the reopening of business.

DeSantis established a large task force last month to help create recommendations for reopening Florida.

Tim Petrillo, co-founder and CEO of The Restaurant People, which operates a chain of 45 restaurants in five states, and a member of the task force, said he liked the governor’s data-driven “pragmatic approach.” But he said he was caught off guard by the governor’s recommendation that businesses open at no more than 25 percent capacity — a topic that had not come up during the task force meetings.

Restaurants, which usually run on razor-thin profit margins, aren’t capable of surviving with just 25 percent of seats filled, he said. Restaurants still have the same kitchen staffing and the same rent as before, yet will have to spend more money on training, disposable menus and cleaning stations.

He said his colleagues in other counties are questioning whether to open at all. He hasn’t had to make that choice yet: his restaurants in Florida are in South Florida, which aren’t allowed to open yet.

“It’s going to be a bloodbath in terms of money lost,” Petrillo said. “I would even be in favor of a longer test period before we even allow restaurants to open.”

DeSantis said Monday that he’s optimistic that Florida’s reopening will go well. He said he’d be comfortable taking his wife and three children out to a restaurant, but he also acknowledged that success against the virus isn’t guaranteed.

“I think people realize we have flattened the curve. The hospitals were half empty for most [of] this period. We’ve preserved the hospital system. We know the virus isn’t going to go away. We know we’ll still have to contend with it. We’ll have to social distance and protect the vulnerable populations, but I do think people feel we need to take some steps,” DeSantis told reporters. “We’re just going to have to follow the data and see what happens.”

Herald/Times reporters Mary Ellen Klas and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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