How Ron DeSantis has changed his messaging during Florida’s pandemic

The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau recorded, transcribed and analyzed what Gov. Ron Desantis has said from 66 of the news conferences and television interviews he's held since the start of the pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis during various news conferences. Clockwise from top, April 27, June 25, July 13, July 14.
Gov. Ron DeSantis during various news conferences. Clockwise from top, April 27, June 25, July 13, July 14. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published July 17, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida recorded its worst week of coronavirus deaths a bi-partisan group of South Florida mayors met Gov. Ron DeSantis on the 29th floor of Miami-Dade County’s government center Tuesday with a request: Please deliver a consistent and urgent message that people need to act responsibly.

Tell people to “wear a mask,” they urged. Craft a “long-term strategy,” they said. “The public needs to be told they have to sacrifice,‘' they implored. Help us “speak with one voice,” they warned, because if nothing changed, they would be forced into another shutdown.

“You speak to a segment of our population directly,‘' Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told the governor. “And I think the fact that you’re saying that is something that’s imperative and important for them to hear.”

It was an extraordinary plea for messaging help from the most prominent leaders in the new global epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, where the infection rate among people tested had risen to 25 percent. DeSantis wore a mask as he made his remarks, for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. So did the mayors.

But if Miami’s mayors wanted the governor to change his approach, it didn’t appear to work. The next day, DeSantis made a surprise appearance before the Board of Education meeting in Dover and held another news conference, sans mask.

The governor’s decision not to always model wearing a mask is one example of how he has delivered a shifting narrative about the coronavirus focused on defending his actions. That’s the conclusion of a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald analysis, in which the Tallahassee bureau recorded, transcribed and analyzed the governor’s messages from 66 of the news conferences and television interviews DeSantis has held since the start of the pandemic.

DeSantis often arrives with a three-ring binder and a slide show of charts and delivers a lengthy update without seeming to take a breath. The events are streamed live from The Florida Channel and the governor’s Facebook page.

DeSantis attempts to paint Florida’s outbreak in the most favorable light, even amid a drumbeat of bad coronavirus news. Key agencies under the governor produce daily reports that reveal the record numbers of death, testing and positive cases. Emergency managers quietly brace for the impact.

On the same day the governor met with the mayors, for example, the Florida Department of Emergency Management signed a $1.8 million purchase order with Lipsey Logistics for four “reefer trailers” — refrigerated trucks “for use at [the] portable morgue.”

When asked why the governor does not see his role as an aggressive advocate for all Floridians to take actions that prevent infections, the governor’s communications team defended his approach.

“Gov. DeSantis believes in a bottom up, decision-making process and not from the top down,‘' said Helen Aguirre Ferré, his communications director, noting in an emailed response that he has frequent calls and meetings with local leaders and medical professionals. “By bringing everyone to the table to work collaboratively, Gov. DeSantis is ensuring that everyone who can help solve the problems locally has the necessary support from the state.”

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Here are some other takeaways from the Times/Herald analysis:

Data that paints Florida’s situation in the best possible light

At a May 22 news conference in Jacksonville, DeSantis touted the low percentage of positive cases, the low hospitalization figures and, perhaps most notably, the low overall case numbers.

“You’re not seeing as many cases as you did at the beginning of April, and so that I think that’s a good sign,” DeSantis said then. “And I would also just note that there’s some states that did draconian policies, and you see them, and they have spikes.”

By mid-June, when the state began reporting rising case numbers — more than 2,000 per day — DeSantis told Floridians the rise could largely be attributed to young people. If cases were rising but the median age of the positive person was declining, Florida had less reason to worry than if the elderly were getting infected en masse, the governor said.

“The number of cases is not something that is necessarily going to tell you what the burden of the disease is,” the governor said on June 19 in Miami.

By early July, 15 percent of Floridians who were tested for the coronavirus were coming back positive in daily reports. The state began frequently recording five-figure daily case totals.

The governor’s take on the significance of a reported case shifted again. On July 6 at The Villages, he suggested the case total was an overrated metric for determining the extent of the outbreak in Florida.

“For every case that’s documented, there are many more infections that have actually occurred,” DeSantis said.

While the numbers were spiking, national experts such as Dr. Deborah Birx warned repeatedly about the danger of the youth-driven outbreak spilling into the more vulnerable elderly population. DeSantis mentioned that possibility at his news conferences as well, and from the outset has urged Floridians of all ages to follow social-distancing guidelines.

But the governor has declined to tailor his messaging around slowing the spread of the virus. Instead, the governor has seemed almost resigned to the fact that people will get infected regardless of warning. His emphasis has been on protecting the vulnerable.

“Look, I wish if you could just stop it you could stop it, but there’s a huge difference between a 21-year-old and an 85-year-old when it comes to this coronavirus, so that is really, really important in terms of our strategy,” the governor said at a news conference in Miami on Monday.

At that same news conference, Carlos Migoya, the president and CEO of Jackson Health System, warned that hospitals in Miami-Dade were filling up in precisely the way experts like Birx had warned.

“The younger people have been contaminating the older people,” Migoya said.

Rupali J. Limaye, a social scientist who studies public health behavior at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said there is a name for what DeSantis is doing. It’s called “agenda setting.”

By selecting data to advance a point of view, he can frame the narrative. In the public health context, however, this can affect how people evaluate personal risk, she said. For example, when the governor emphasizes that the risk among young people is low, it may make them less likely to wear a mask without concern for elders, she said.

“If I hear something like, ‘Actually there’s cases but it seems like it’s among young people, so I’m fine,’ that would make me less likely to wear a mask,” Limaye said.

In Baltimore, where she has worked to help shape public health messaging, they focus on telling people, “this is not just about you, protecting you, but it’s about protecting your loved ones.”

Harsher messaging left to agency heads or local governments

After the governor announced that bars and restaurants could reopen to 50 percent capacity in early June, cases among young people began to spike. By June 26, the governor reversed the order and prohibited bars from serving alcohol. He left the announcement to Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears.

Rather than hold a news conference to announce the controversial decision to reopen schools, the governor left it to Education Secretary Richard Corcoran, who quietly released an executive order at the end of the day on July 6.

As the number of COVID cases continued to reach daily record highs in the state, the governor on June 20 made his first reference to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on “facial coverings.” Nine days later he called mask mandates “coercive” but said he would not prevent local governments from issuing their own — contrary to what Georgia’s Republican governor has done.

This week, the Republican governors in Alabama and Arkansas issued statewide mask mandates.

The piecemeal approach to the state’s COVID policy had the mayors urging the governor to develop a consistent message that can be evenly applied.

Miami’s Suarez told the governor the absence of a unified message will complicate efforts to “justify to the community” any additional remedial efforts, such as a shutdown.

“It does no good to have one rule in Doral and one rule in Miami or one rule in Pinecrest, because everybody in our cities travels from one to the other,” said Doral Mayor J.C. Bermudez. “If we have the same information and we have the same messaging, we will go a long way to allay the fears.”

Using data to project a point of view

When DeSantis announced that most of the state would reopen for business in early May, he focused on outdated statistics to make his case, even though Department of Health data showed that community spread, regional outbreaks and death tolls were worse than he was suggesting, a Miami Herald analysis showed.

“The positivity rate is really significant because that is an indication of how widely this is circulating, how aggressively it is circulating in the community,” the governor said on April 30, when the three-day rolling average rate was just over 6 percent.

According to confidential Department of Health data obtained exclusively and analyzed by the Miami Herald, new cases were also showing an uptick around that time, going the opposite direction than what was recommended under federal reopening guidelines.

When the state was reporting a positivity rate of less than 10 percent throughout May, DeSantis touted that rate as evidence the state was reopening safely.

But in June, the percentage of people testing positive for the virus rose, then remained for weeks in the double digits — a signal that community spread was increasing. DeSantis downplayed the spike.

“The number of people that test positive as a percentage statewide has basically remained steady and even slightly declined over the last few days,‘' the governor told the mayors. “So we’ve really been in that 14 percent on average now ... which is potentially a good indicator for those other 64 counties.”

Public health experts contradict that analysis, saying that if the number of tests increase but the percentage of people testing positive remains the same or rises, it is an indication that infections are spreading.

In Tampa on Thursday, DeSantis again called the positivity rate a “stabilization” instead of what public health officials say is a signal of spread. “We are capturing a larger share of the people who are actually infected,‘' he said.

The governor’s messaging has also included blaming the media, suggesting in May that the media wasn’t reporting on what he said was a lower COVID death rate than other states because “it challenges their narrative,” and on June 26 said that at press events in May “I would never be asked about coronavirus.” The claim was deemed false by PolitiFact and CNN.

Comparing with other states, often without context

At every news conference, the governor has touted success at tamping down fatalities at nursing homes. He cites the lessons learned from states like Washington and New York, where nursing home case counts spiraled after officials allowed patients to be discharged from hospitals back into nursing homes without screening them for COVID-19.

Florida prohibited patients from being transferred back to long-term care facilities without two negative tests, and has set up 15 COVID-only nursing homes to isolate patients needing less acute care.

“I don’t think any other state in the country has done what we’ve done to protect the vulnerable here in the state of Florida,‘' DeSantis said on July 7 at the opening of the COVID-only facility in Miami at the former Pan American Hospital.

More recently, as the governor has been unable to avoid the drumbeat of daily reports announcing coronavirus casualties, he has been highlighting the rate at which people with the virus have died.

“As you’ve seen more cases, we’ve also seen a decline in the case fatality rate. So Florida, as of today was 1.5 percent. That’s a fraction of the national average which is about 4 percent.”

He added: “The outcomes for our patients in Florida have been better than in many other states,‘' he told the Miami-Dade County mayors.

Limaye said that this trend is not unique to Florida. As we have better detection, more testing and know more about what symptoms to look out for, people are getting to the doctor earlier after being infected, she said. “As a result, we’re able to reduce the number of people that are dying because people aren’t coming with very, very severe cases. They’re coming earlier.”

Talking points full of medical terms

At a news conference in Bradenton on July 11, Ravi Chari, the West Florida Division president for the HCA hospital chain, commended the governor for “his understanding, his focus” and his “stack of papers” in a three-ring binder that includes data and talking points.

The governor, a lawyer, sometimes sounds as if he is speaking to an audience of medical professionals rather than to the general population. At a July 9 news conference in Jacksonville, for example, DeSantis said that 21-year-olds were testing positive more than any other age group but wanted to underscore the impact of the virus on their health compared to older people with health conditions.

“There may not be huge clinical consequences in that cohort,‘' he said. “That cohort is not segmented from dealing with people who may be older with co-morbidities.”

The governor frequently speaks about research that shows children “don’t serve as significant vectors” in the spread of the virus. He has used the word at least 21 times.

Since April 28, he has used the term “co-morbidity” at least 22 times to refer to people with preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to health complications from the infection.

And at least 15 times in the last two months, he has talked about “clinical consequences'' when he refers to people who have become so sick from COVID-19 they need to be hospitalized.

Limaye of Johns Hopkins said that “humans are really bad at estimating their own risk” and because “the general public doesn’t understand terms like ‘co-morbidity’ or ‘death rate,’ " using clinically focused words puts the message out of reach for many people.

“An easier way to explain this would be to say things like: if you have heart disease, which more than half of the population in the United States is you are more likely to have a severe case of COVID',” she said.

He defends hands-off approach as ‘more sustainable’

Since he first faced calls to shut down the state in March, DeSantis has defended his approach as something that could serve Florida better in the long run.

“You need to practice the social distancing, but you don’t have to necessarily just shut down 24 hours a day,‘' he said on March 20. “Because I think that’s a more sustainable model. And the more people are shut in, I think the more anxious they get.”

Limaye said another approach might be to avoid talking about mandates and rules and remind people that “if everyone just did this, we could go back to normalcy and much quicker.”

“It’s not about how we’re going to force you to do this,‘' she said. “It’s that you’re really missing out.”

Ferré, who is leaving the governor’s office to head the state Republican Party, said the Florida Department of Health has launched a public service announcement aimed at preventing infection by “encouraging all Floridians to protect the most vulnerable by ‘Avoiding the Three Cs: Closed Spaces, Crowded Places and Close-Contact Situations.’ "

It’s easy to remember messages, in “plain and simple language,” that work well for messaging, Limaye said.

The Three C’s campaign was used effectively in Japan, which ended its state of emergency in late May. The Department of Health began the campaign in late June, and DeSantis started using the phrase the Three C’s, at a news conference on June 26, according to the Times/Herald analysis.

The governor has also turned the meeting with the mayors into a promotional video, selecting clips of them giving compliments to the governor for being accessible and suggesting they are “united to win this battle.”

The online video, however, didn’t show DeSantis speaking at the meeting wearing the mask. There is one quick image showing him wearing a mask, and it’s from behind. The video also excluded the warning from the mayors, including Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber who called the situation a “really hard lesson in leadership.” He urged the governor to unify the message by joining them to tell people what they don’t want to hear.

“Too many people think this is someone else’s responsibility to take care of,‘' he said. “The public needs to be told they have to sacrifice ... because if we don’t, if we wait until it’s in front of us, then we’re going to end up where it’s too late.”

DeSantis sidestepped the request and stayed close to his strategy — letting the mayors deliver that message.

“You don’t have to agree with me on everything,‘' he said. “But you’re the leaders at this place, in this time ... and people need to follow it.”

Two days later, DeSantis held another news conference without wearing a mask, and made no mention of another record death count. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered county inspectors to start issuing citations against people violating the mask rules. And the Miami mayor, Suarez, met with business leaders to talk about another shutdown.

• • •

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