TAMPA — All over the country, the groups have grabbed headlines, storming state capitols, dramatically staring down law enforcement officers while forcefully declaring what they believe to be their rights.
Not so in Florida.
Sure, there have been rallies. In late April, some 200 showed up to a Tampa television station toting messages like “Quarantine for the sick. Vitamins for the rest” and “End quarantine now!” For hours, they waved signs on Kennedy Boulevard and disregarded social distancing recommendations.
There are Facebook groups: About 10,000 are signed onto a page called “Reopen Florida.”
But Florida’s reopen movement has been a more modest affair compared to those that have disrupted other states. An analysis by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a non-profit watchdog of far-right extremists, found that Facebook groups dedicated to reopening Florida have just a fraction of the following of other states’ groups. For example, “Michiganders against excessive quarantine” had some 382,400 members as of Friday.
And unlike other states, such as Michigan or Ohio, denunciations of the governor’s safer-at-home order haven’t come from one of the state’s highest political offices.
Devin Burghart studies these movements for a living as the president of the institute. He said Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch conservative, hasn’t gotten much pushback from the reopen crowd because he has built up years of good will fighting for many of their causes.
“You have a much more sympathetic governor to these causes,” Burghart said.
DeSantis has dedicated substantial portions of recent news conferences aiming fire at a favorite target of Trump’s base: reporters and the experts they quote. He says they stoked panic at the pandemic’s outset. If the Reopen Florida Facebook group is any gauge, that’s music to the ears of the most conservative Floridians — some of whom doubt the coronavirus is any more dangerous than the seasonal flu. (It is.)
Yet, DeSantis’ record in handling the crisis shows he’s taken the disease seriously. He did issue a shutdown order on April 1, after all. And, at least at first, DeSantis’ actions to reopen the state were more cautious than the recommendations from the White House and other Republican-led states. Movie theaters, for example, are still closed under the governor’s executive order. Not so in Texas.
Some in the Reopen groups have picked up on DeSantis’ caution.
“I’m not fully satisfied with his response,” said Tara Hill, a moderator on the Reopen Florida Facebook group. “However, I think his intentions are toward reopening the state.”
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So far, that viewpoint from the right is an exception. FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy nonprofit that played a major role in the Tea Party movement, actively promotes Reopen protests on its website. Earlier this month, the group put out a scorecard which graded America’s 50 governors on their reopening plans. It was essentially a qualitative assessment: the better a governor balanced the health needs of their state with the daunting economic reality, the higher they scored. DeSantis was one of nine governors to score an “A.” Eight were Republicans. (Washington D.C. and its mayor were also included in the scorecard.)
Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, said the grades are subject to change with the evolving executive orders. But so far, Brandon says, DeSantis has closed what needs closing and started to open what can be safely opened.
“You have to be smarter than just these blanket approaches,” Brandon said. “It’s pretty clear when you look at the graphs who gets sick and who doesn’t.”
Although the state has significantly ramped up its testing capacity in recent weeks, experts say Florida is still not testing enough people to fully reopen the economy. Last week, the state tested about 18,600 people per day. Dr. Charles Lockwood, the dean of University of South Florida’s College of Medicine who has said he supports the governor’s approach to reopening, said in April the state needs to be testing about 33,000 people every day.
Such numbers are unpersuasive to the reopen crowd.
A primary reason for that is the economic desperation brought about by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Burghart said. But, like the Tea Party before it, there’s also more at play.
National conservative groups like Freedomworks are happy to help grassroots activists who align with their small government message. (Brandon said Freedomworks has not spent money to help organize the Reopen protests.) And like the Tea Party, the movement is uniting disparate factions skeptical of Big Government: Donald Trump superfans, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine crusaders.
However, there is one major difference between the two movements: timing. The Reopen campaign has already amassed an online following of over 2 million Facebook users across hundreds of groups, according to the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights analysis. It took months for the Tea Party to accomplish what the Reopen movement has in weeks.
Burghart said even if the Reopen movement isn’t dictating the conversation in Florida — yet — standard bearers of the right like Ron DeSantis may have to tread carefully. If one lesson can be applied from the Tea Party, it’s that conservatives alienate the grassroots base at their own risk.
“They have an outsized influence on the dialogue,” Burghart said.
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