Since the state’s first confirmed COVID-19 case one year ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis has unilaterally managed Florida’s response to the pandemic.
His administration published detailed data on the state’s outbreak and also hid unflattering numbers. It saw an unemployment system crash and burn and rebuilt. Hospitals filled and emptied and filled again. It decided how billions of dollars in aid would be spent on those struggling to cope. Vaccination plans were made, scrapped, and remade on the fly.
More than 1.8 million people have caught the virus in Florida and more than 30,000 have died. But those numbers represent better per capita figures than the United States as a whole. DeSantis has pushed officials to reopen schools and businesses, and the unemployment rate is down to less than half of its April peak.
DeSantis is widely considered a leading candidate for president in 2024, and he’s already giving campaign-style speeches about his coronavirus record.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed eight key calls DeSantis made during the first year of the pandemic. Those episodes reveal an executive who opted to go it alone, drawing his own conclusions from preferred metrics. Even when his instincts proved right, DeSantis was often undercut by mixed messaging and unclear orders.
DeSantis, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview for this story.
But in a lengthy statement, his office said DeSantis’ actions have protected the most vulnerable residents while keeping “our economy and society functioning.”
“The governor has been able to lift Floridians up instead of locking our state down,” spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice wrote in the response, which appears in its entirety at the end of this story.
March 14: DeSantis stops visits at long-term care facilities
Caseload: 77 known cases; four deaths
On March 9, Veronica Catoe, the CEO of the Florida Assisted Living Association, was called into the state Emergency Operations Center to discuss a growing concern. How would millions of confined elderly residents withstand the onslaught of a novel respiratory virus?
Catoe said she’d never met Emergency Management Division Director Jared Moskowitz before that day. At that moment, she felt part of the decision process.
So it surprised Catoe when, five days later, DeSantis’ administration dropped a stunning order: Most visitors would be barred from entering the state’s 4,000 long-term care facilities.
“There was no collaboration, it just came out,” Catoe said recently. “Initially, it was extremely hard for providers.”
Ultimately, Catoe said DeSantis made the right call. Not only did he end visitation at long-term care centers, he stopped hospitals from transferring COVID-positive patients back to their original facilities. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who DeSantis has used as a foil throughout the pandemic, directed facilities to accept COVID-positive transfers, and the results were disastrous.
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Beatrice noted DeSantis also set up dedicated nursing homes equipped to handle coronavirus cases.
“It was a good plan because we kept our seniors safe,” Catoe said.
April 1: Stay-at-home order
Through the early weeks of the pandemic, DeSantis insisted most of the state could remain open for business even as the virus rapidly spread. Many cities and counties, including in Tampa Bay, took matters into their own hands, issuing lockdowns and asking people to stay home to flatten the curve.
Then came a shift in tone from the White House. President Donald Trump, who had promised an Easter revival, announced a 30-day extension of his administration’s social distancing guidelines, an acknowledgment that the outbreak was growing out of control. Trump’s actions gave DeSantis cover to order non-essential workers to stay home.
The decision briefly kindled a show of unity in a divided state. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, said it was “the right call.” Public health officials agreed.
The solidarity was short-lived. Local leaders strained to understand the rules and couldn’t get answers from the governor’s team. The order appeared to instruct all senior citizens and anyone with a “significant underlying medical condition” to remain homebound. It would take days for DeSantis’ administration to clarify that wasn’t the case.
There was confusion, too, over whether businesses had to close, what work was considered essential and whether local governments could shutter churches.
DeSantis further muddied matters when he quietly signed a second executive order that appeared to override local ordinances. He later claimed the second order did the opposite of what was clearly written on the page. Some Florida mayors called each other in a panic, trying to piece together the meaning, St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman said.
“What it felt like to a lot of us is the governor would go out and give a press conference and his office would scramble to write an order that matched what he said in the press conference,” Kriseman said. “We had to try and enforce it and interpret it. And you couldn’t get clarity from his office.”
April 13: Rivkees pulled from meeting
With Floridians still trying to adjust to life in a pandemic, state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees warned residents during a news conference that they should be prepared to social distance and wear masks for a year until a vaccine arrives.
Within minutes, a DeSantis aide hustled him out of the meeting.
At the time, a DeSantis spokeswoman said Rivkees was pulled because he had a meeting scheduled. But Politico later reported there was no record of any meeting.
For critics and some experts, the odd episode exemplified how the DeSantis administration viewed scientific expertise and downplayed information about the impact of the coronavirus.
“It was a rare public glimpse into how ineffective the decision-making apparatus was,” said Thomas Hladish, a research scientist at the University of Florida who worked for the Florida Department of Health for several months during the pandemic. “Everything Rivkees said there was accurate but that wasn’t what DeSantis wanted to hear.”
DeSantis’ administration moved to keep unfavorable information from the public on other occasions. State officials delayed sharing breakdowns of cases and deaths at long-term care facilities and prisons, and stopped medical examiners from releasing coronavirus death lists. News outlets have had to enlist lawyers to get the state to hand over public data.
Rivkees, the state’s top health official, mostly vanished from public view following that April news conference.
Public health experts have expressed frustration that the state has not relied more heavily on scientific evidence.
Rivkees in March convened a scientific advisory committee on the pandemic, according to Dr. Glenn Morris, director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. The initial phone conference included about a dozen experts from multiple universities, Morris said.
But at the end of the meeting, Rivkees announced that would be the only meeting. It was not clear why.
“What should have been a highly collaborative process, taking advantage of scientific expertise across the state, has instead become divisiveness and controversy and adversarial relationships,” Morris said. “The governor knows what he wants to do, and he’s going to do it.”
April 15: DeSantis replaces head of unemployment system
When he strode to the podium at a news conference April 15, the state’s unemployment benefits system was in a monthlong meltdown, and he was facing a compounding crisis.
Even worse, he was flying blind.
When asked how many jobless applications the state had processed and how many were outstanding — simple metrics to mark the state’s progress — DeSantis rifled through his notes for the data before looking up, emptyhanded.
”I don’t have exactly that number,” he said, wincing. “I ask for the numbers every morning.”
He cited the lack of data as one of the reasons why he was replacing the head of the unemployment agency, Ken Lawson, with Jonathan Satter, a different department head.
The unemployment system showed slow but significant improvement under Satter. A month after he took over, DeSantis claimed many of the problems had been fixed, and that “99.99 percent” of people who had filed claims correctly had been paid. Those who hadn’t been paid made a mistake filling out forms, the governor said.
For many waiting on benefits, that comment seemed insulting. Carolyn Hustedde, a Tampa events bartender, waited 10 weeks for her state unemployment benefits — and not because she filled out a form incorrectly.
“I was a Gov. DeSantis fan before all of this. But I don’t like the lack of acknowledgment,” Hustedde told the Times in May. “I just feel like he’s just really slighted the little people.”
The system has improved in the past year. A dashboard set up by the state showed that 96.7 percent of eligible unemployment claimants had been paid as of Monday.
April 29: DeSantis announces he’ll start lifting restrictions
Caseload: 33,193 cases; 1,240 deaths
Within weeks of closing down the state, DeSantis was itching to restart the economy. In mid-April, he assembled a task force led by some of the country’s most notable corporations and trade groups — Disney, Lockheed Martin, Florida Power & Light, AT&T and the Florida Bankers Association — to strategize a safe reopening. Noticeably absent was medical and scientific expertise.
On April 28, as the state health department announced a new daily record of 83 deaths, DeSantis joined Trump in the Oval Office and declared Florida ready to reopen. At the time, Florida had yet to meet the White House’s guidelines to resume business and social activities.
“He’s doing a very good job,” Trump said of DeSantis during their appearance.
The next day, DeSantis unveiled his three-phase strategy for reopening. In many ways, it was a more cautious approach than his Republican counterparts in nearby southern states. Restaurants and retail stores could open at limited capacity, but bars, gyms, spas and salons remained closed. Even movie theaters, which the White House allowed to operate in its phase one guidelines, would stay shuttered for a few more months.
Wearing a mask was encouraged but not required, which would become a point of contention between DeSantis and many local leaders.
“I erred on the side of taking measured steps, even baby steps, to start on the road of a brighter day,” DeSantis said at the time.
In the ensuing weeks, DeSantis appeared confident that Florida had avoided a more deadly outbreak. He declared Florida a coronavirus success story. When Vice President Mike Pence visited Orlando, DeSantis roasted reporters and, in a widely shared video, accused the media of fearmongering over the virus. By June, DeSantis had further eased restrictions on restaurants and allowed bars and breweries to welcome back patrons.
That turned out to be short-lived. As the summer heat pushed people into air conditioning, cases spiked. Florida became ground zero for the country’s outbreak. On June 26, the state shut down bars again.
July 6: Corcoran orders schools to reopen to in-person instruction in the fall
Caseload: 206,447 cases; 3,880 deaths
In March, Florida, like other states, moved to shut down in-person classes for K-12 students. Beatrice, DeSantis’ spokeswoman, said it was “done out of an abundance of caution.”
But as summer began, DeSantis made clear that he wanted schools to reopen at “full capacity” come fall, saying it was crucial for learning and the state’s economy. Florida’s 67 school districts mobilized to enact plans.
Soon after, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order saying that districts must provide in-person instruction five days a week for all students as long as local health conditions allow.
Some parents welcomed the news. Others worried their children could be forced back into a classroom. Teachers raised concerns about their health and safety. Districts scrambled to offer face-to-face instruction and virtual options.
At the time, the risks of the coronavirus in schools were not clear. In the ensuing months, mounting evidence showed schools haven’t been a main driver of community spread.
“That turned out to be, in hindsight, I think a pretty good decision,” said Dr. Cindy Prins, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida. “We’ve known all along that there are persons who need that in-person access. That’s been critical for those kids.”
To date, the state has counted nearly 70,000 coronavirus cases linked to K-12 schools and 15,000 cases associated with postsecondary institutions.
DeSantis has touted the decision to reopen schools, accusing skeptics of putting “the interests of education unions and special interests ahead of the well-being of our children and of our families.”
He has called closing schools the “biggest public health blunder in modern American history.”
Florida continues to be one of only a handful of states that have mandated that schools be reopened face-to-face, said Bree Dusseault of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research group.
Sept. 25: DeSantis fully reopens state
Caseload: 695,887 cases; 14,083 deaths
DeSantis made it clear on Sept. 1 that the era of shutdowns in Florida was coming to a close.
“We will never do any of these lockdowns again,” DeSantis said.
By the end of the month, DeSantis lifted the last of the coronavirus restrictions. He also banned cities and counties from enforcing mask mandates. A wave of confusion hit once more as customers occasionally clashed with store employees and restaurant workers over wearing masks, insisting that the governor said they didn’t have to.
“What he did completely undercut us and the successes we achieved,” Kriseman said.
DeSantis asserted that opening Florida sooner than most states has better positioned it for economic recovery. Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said DeSantis has threaded a difficult needle between public health and ensuring people could earn a living.
“Florida has consistently stayed ahead of the curve, and my colleagues (in other states) are very envious of us,” Dover said.
Florida is one of just a handful of states (mostly in the warm south) that saw restaurant jobs go up from November to December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And the unemployment rate has steadily fallen after its spring peak of 13.7 percent. At last count in December, it was 6.1 percent — middle of the pack compared to the rest of the country, and much lower than states with stricter lockdowns, like California, Illinois and New York.
But experts are wary of linking economic outcomes with certain pandemic policies. Too many other factors are at play — like climate and when the outbreak hit a state — and there’s so much uncertainty ahead, said Michael Ettlinger, director of the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
“It’s way too early for anyone to declare victory,” said Ettlinger, who has closely tracked state economic data during the pandemic. “A governor saying that is not doing so on the basis of rigorous analysis.”
Dec. 23: DeSantis opens vaccinations to elderly Floridians
In December, federal emergency use authorizations for two coronavirus vaccines offered hope for pandemic-weary Floridians.
The state, following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, started off by offering doses to frontline health care workers and to residents and staff of long-term care facilities. People began getting shots Dec. 14.
On Christmas week, with supplies from the federal government still extremely limited, DeSantis abruptly announced he was opening up vaccinations to those 65 and older.
The announcement laid bare the state’s continuing issues with communication. County health departments, caught off guard, scrambled to come up with plans to dole out doses for the sizable population suddenly clamoring for them. Viral images of elderly Floridians camped out overnight for vaccines again put Florida in a national spotlight.
The decision was a marked departure from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine guidelines at the time. It also contradicted the state’s own vaccination plan, which was available only in an earlier draft.
Directing vaccinations to the vulnerable elderly population was an understandable decision, said Morris, the director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. But, he added: “There was not the logistics or the infrastructure to really back it up.”
DeSantis has consistently touted his decision to “put seniors first” as a national success, repeatedly reciting the share of Florida seniors who have been vaccinated compared to other states. (Overall, data shows that Florida is about on par with the nationwide average in the share of people who have gotten at least one shot.)
Beatrice said the approach is “not only the right thing to do, but also the most effective tool we have to battle the pandemic and to help reduce the mortality rate.”
Other states have since followed Florida in prioritizing elderly residents. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance Jan. 12 to recommend that all states open vaccine availability to people ages 65 and older.
Florida is the only state that has not publicly shared a plan for who will get the shots next. However, on Tuesday, DeSantis said he’d like the four federal vaccine sites opening next week to offer doses to police officers and teachers over the age of 50.
Response from the governor’s office
The governor’s office sent a lengthy response after the Tampa Bay Times sent a list of questions about DeSantis’ decisions over the past 12 months.
Here is the full statement:
Under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, Florida is a free state where data and science prevail, and residents’ individual liberties are respected and protected. Thanks to the governor’s ongoing commitment during the COVID-19 public health emergency to protect our most vulnerable while safeguarding the right to earn a living and the right to operate a business, the governor has been able to lift Floridians up instead of locking our state down.
Proof that the governor’s actions saved lives is reflected in publicly available (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) data. Florida is the third most populous state in the nation, so it is significant that 38 other states rank higher for COVID mortality among seniors 65 and older, per capita. While every death resulting from COVID-19 is a tragedy, the data demonstrates that Gov. DeSantis’ leadership prevented the deaths of potentially thousands in our state. In addition, compared to Florida, 34 states had a higher rate of all-cause mortality from 2019 to 2020, per capita. States with higher-than-average increases almost assuredly saw increased deaths resulting from lockdown policies, not just from COVID. It is also worth noting that California and New York had significantly higher rates for new COVID-19 cases compared to Florida per capita, as well as significantly higher hospitalizations.
Since day one of the public health emergency, the governor has been singularly focused on protecting those most vulnerable to COVID-19. His actions early on to establish 23 COVID-19 dedicated nursing homes to prevent spread have been credited with saving thousands of lives in a population with the highest mortality rate. The state required hospitals to test all individuals discharged to long-term care facilities and required these facilities to transfer COVID-19 positive residents if the facility was not equipped for appropriate care.
Gov. DeSantis also deployed Florida National Guard and Florida Department of Health Strike Teams to nursing homes and assisted living facilities for testing throughout the pandemic, and those teams were also used for vaccine distribution. Once the mental and emotional toll of visitation restrictions for long-term care residents became apparent, the governor spearheaded efforts to safely reconnect families with their loved ones in long-term care.
When the vaccine arrived in Florida, the governor launched an all-hands-on-deck effort to mobilize resources and stand-up vaccination sites across the state, especially for Florida’s seniors and underserved communities. Vaccinating Floridians 65 and older is not only the right thing to do, but also the most effective tool we have to battle the pandemic and to help reduce the mortality rate. In December, Gov. DeSantis issued an executive order putting seniors first, as well as frontline health care workers and individuals deemed medically vulnerable by hospitals.
Florida is leading the nation in vaccinations of seniors and to date, Florida has vaccinated over 2.1 million seniors, which is over 75 percent of the 2.7 million people who have received their vaccine in Florida, and over 45 percent of the roughly 4.5 million seniors living in the state.
Gov. DeSantis continues to collaborate with leaders across the state to help reach more seniors. The state of Florida has established over 800 vaccination sites that have been opened statewide in partnership with local communities, retail partners and pharmacies and hospitals.
At the governor’s direction, the state has been working to increase vaccine access to underserved communities. In January, Gov. DeSantis directed the Florida Division of Emergency Management and Florida Department of Health to identify places of worship and other locations in underserved communities where the COVID-19 vaccine may be administered. To date, the Division and the Department of Health have supported COVID-19 vaccine events at 57 places of worship statewide and administered more than 44,000 vaccines through these one-day vaccination clinics.
In addition to the state’s partnership with places of worship, Gov. DeSantis announced the establishment of four COVID-19 vaccination sites in partnership with the federal government in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. These sites were strategically identified to increase vaccine access to underserved communities throughout the state. These sites will open on March 3 and will operate 7 days per week, 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. Each site will administer 2,000 vaccines per day. Additionally, each site will have two smaller, mobile satellite sites that will conduct 500 vaccinations per day in underserved areas. (More information is available here.)
As a continuation of ongoing efforts to identify areas where there may be difficulty accessing the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. DeSantis, Florida Lottery Secretary John Davis, and former NFL Wide Receiver Anquan Boldin organized a vaccination event in Pahokee in an effort to serve seniors in western Palm Beach County. Secretary Davis has since announced that the site will become permanent, to offer 500 doses per week.Additionally, last week the Division of Emergency Management and Florida A&M University announced that a state-supported vaccination site will open at FAMU to support underserved communities. The state is looking forward to establishing additional sites, like the one at FAMU, and we remain committed to increasing vaccine access to underserved communities.
Gov. DeSantis and the administration have worked with several retails partners to make the vaccine accessible to seniors in communities, including working with Navarro and CVS ymas to establish 81 new vaccination locations; 593 Publix Pharmacies; 119 Walmart and Sam’s Clubs; and 43 Winn Dixies.
The governor also announced a vaccination pilot program for homebound seniors. The pilot began with Holocaust survivors and veterans of the Bay of Pigs Invasion and then the state partnered with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs to identify veterans of World War II and the Korean War who are not able to travel to receive a vaccine. To date, Florida has vaccinated nearly 1,300 seniors through this pilot program. Gov. DeSantis highlighted Florida’s homebound senior vaccination program last week, during a visit to the home of WWII veteran, Vern Cummings. (I’d encourage you to share with your readers that homebound veterans interested in the vaccine can submit their contact information at the following website: floridavets.org/homeboundveterans/.)
Beyond the governor’s actions to protect our most vulnerable, put seniors first and ensure vaccine access to all communities across the state, Florida has kept our economy and society functioning. The data shows that mass shutdowns do not work and have severe consequences, and in Florida, every parent has the option to send their child to school; every Floridian has a right to go work and earn a living; and every Floridian has a right to operate a business.
Over the past year, Florida has maintained maximum flexibility and options for parents, students and school districts while adding tools to address the needs of struggling students and provide interventions to close achievement gaps. Data early on during the pandemic suggested that children were not strong vectors of the virus, but the initial school closures were done out of an abundance of caution. Last summer, Gov. DeSantis issued an executive order allowing for youth activities and athletics to empower families and students, as well as support overall mental health and well-being.
Florida was one of the first states in the nation to mandate the choice of in-person instruction for families and students. States such as Florida that allowed kids to be in school have exhibited no significant difference in case rates among children compared to lockdown states. Florida’s 0-17 per capita rate is in line with California despite Florida offering in-person instruction to almost 100 percent of all public school students, whereas California is only offering just above 11 percent (per the Burbio school opening tracker).
In December, in partnership with the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the Florida Department of Education issued Emergency Order 2020-EO-07 to maintain the critical flexibility and assurances outlined in EO-06 for spring 2020, and includes: maintaining a parent’s right to choose what educational option best fits the needs of their family, including innovative learning options that benefit students, families and school employees; guaranteeing the full panoply of services for at-risk students; and progress monitoring for all students, while ensuring financial flexibility and stability for school districts and charter schools. In addition, EO-07 requires educational interventions for students who may be falling behind, especially at-risk students, and rewards school districts and individual charter schools that have exceeded their projected enrollment.
Finally, Florida leads the nation’s most populous states in (the) unemployment rate for December 2020. Florida’s unemployment rate for December 2020 decreased to 6.1 percent, falling below the national average of 6.7 percent. Twenty-four states had a higher rate of unemployment in December 2020 including Illinois (7.6 percent), New York (8.2 percent) and California (9.0 percent). Florida closed out 2020 with eight consecutive months of job growth, gaining 748,100 private-sector jobs from May-December.
During the pandemic, people and businesses continued to flee the Northeast and lockdown states to relocate to Florida. Florida was in the top 3 in 2020 of the U-Haul Growth States in one-way rentals for the fifth straight year and population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau grew 14.3 percent from July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2020, based on tax returns, Medicare filings and (United States Postal Service) change of address requests.
Home sales saw over a 20 percent increase during the last 6 months of 2020 with a 21 percent year-over-year increase in December alone and 14.4 percent increase in median sale price. In 2019, over 1,000 new people moved to Florida every day, and while we do not know the official 2020 numbers, the demand for homes indicates the number for 2020 should be at least as high as it was in 2019. In 2020 single-family home sales were up 22.9 percent year-over-year; and median sales price up 14.1 percent. Finally, over 35 large businesses moved to Florida from another state since the pandemic began and that is only counting the businesses our economic development team worked with. These businesses represent a capital investment of over $1 billion.
Thanks to these strong economic indicators, Florida remains poised to continue making historic investments in issues that matter most to Floridians, including our K-12 education system and teachers, efforts to enhance mental health support within our communities and our ongoing commitment to preserving and protecting Florida’s environmental resources.
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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
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