Five COVID questions for Gov. Ron DeSantis | Editorial
As the pandemic surges, Floridians need answers.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

Florida will surpass the 1 million mark in coronavirus cases today, as the pandemic expands its reach. The swell of infections continues to take lives, strain the hospital system and hammer the economy, and while there is good news on the vaccine front, it could be months before enough Americans are able to be inoculated to return the country to some sense of normal.

As the third-largest state, Florida will be at the forefront of the pandemic fight in the coming weeks and months. Yet Gov. Ron DeSantis reemerged publicly Monday for one of the few times in weeks, and largely filibustered his way through a news conference that was heavy on self-praise and short on specifics. This leadership void in a worsening crisis only feeds a growing anxiety about where the governor stands — on his strategy for dealing with COVID-19, on his willingness to help struggling Florida residents and businesses and on his relationship with the incoming president, Democrat Joe Biden, who will take over the federal effort upon his inauguration next month.

Floridians need the governor to answer some basic questions.

Have you adopted a policy of “herd immunity?” DeSantis has not responded to requests by a group of mayors including Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg to impose protective measures in response to rising infections, though on Monday, he dismissed the notion of a statewide mask order or returning to lockdowns on certain businesses. Some critics accuse him of supporting the controversial policies of Dr. Scott Atlas, an adviser to President Donald Trump who resigned from his position in a letter dated today. He endorsed allowing community spread of the virus while protecting the elderly. That approach, though, has been rejected by mainstream public health professionals, who see it as unrealistic and extreme. Floridians deserve to know whether this is DeSantis’ strategy or not.

What’s the plan for rolling out a vaccine? The DeSantis administration has not responded to repeated requests for information about how Florida will distribute a vaccine once one is available. He acknowledged that Florida would “set priorities” given the scarcity of initial doses, focusing on the elderly and front-line health care workers, but has not provided any guidance or timetable for how that will be done. Given Florida’s large population of seniors and medical personnel, and the apparent skepticism by many to take an early generation of vaccines, it makes sense the state would be conducting a messaging campaign now to build public confidence and preparation. But that’s not happening.

Is Florida prepared to help Floridians? DeSantis said Monday that he favored another federal relief bill and hoped that Congress and the White House could agree on an aid package in the “next month or two.” Month or two? Some states, frustrated with the gridlock in Washington, are acting on their own, convening special legislative sessions and providing financial assistance to residents, small business owners, renters, the unemployed and others whose livelihoods have been decimated by the partial shutdown in the economy. DeSantis ignored a question Monday about whether Florida would expand the state’s unemployment assistance, again deflecting attention to the federal government. Why shouldn’t lawmakers acknowledge reality and provide at least interim relief?

What’s the next step on evictions? Thousands of Floridians can’t pay their rent, many having lost their jobs or had their hours cut because of the pandemic. The governor had repeatedly extended a state moratorium on evictions, but lifted that moratorium in September, saying it was redundant to have similar state and federal bans on evictions. In theory, that makes sense, but the federal moratorium has loopholes — as the Tampa Bay Times outlined in a recent story — plus it expires at the end of December. What then? Will Florida reestablish its own ban on evictions, or allow the legal process to play out? If the latter, will the state provide any sort of financial cushion for the thousands of people evicted from their homes?

How will you build a relationship with President-elect Biden? DeSantis certainly got off on the wrong foot, urging Trump in the aftermath of his reelection defeat to work with Republican legislatures in key states to overturn the voters’ will by certifying a different slate of electors. DeSantis went underground as Trump’s baseless allegations of voter fraud foundered in the courts, and now he needs help from the Biden administration as states maneuver to compete for the limited vaccines. What will this relationship look like in six months, when America hopes a post-pandemic recovery is underway? What will DeSantis do to strengthen his ability to promote the state’s larger agenda? Or does the Republican governor intend to fight a Democratic president like his fellow Republican and predecessor Rick Scott?

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news