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Who is Gov. DeSantis listening to on the virus? | Editorial
Certainly not public health experts from the White House.
Gov Ron DeSantis speaks during an appearance Monday at Tampa General Hospital just after its first shipment of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were received. The governor stayed while a nurse received the first dose, but left quickly without taking questions from reporters.
Gov Ron DeSantis speaks during an appearance Monday at Tampa General Hospital just after its first shipment of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were received. The governor stayed while a nurse received the first dose, but left quickly without taking questions from reporters. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 15, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis might as well come out and say it. No amount of bad news will change his mind on how to handle the coronavirus pandemic. A recent report by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, paints a bleak picture for the Sunshine State. But even as infections surge, DeSantis keeps plowing ahead with his message that everything will be fine. It’s irresponsible, and Monday’s arrival of a vaccine is no magic bullet.

The White House report, made public Saturday, urges state leaders to take immediate action to slow the virus’ spread. Officials should close or severely limit indoor dining, limit capacity at bars and issue stronger policies around mask wearing, the report states. Yet as the Tampa Bay Times’ Kirby Wilson reported, these are the same public health measures that DeSantis has for months publicly assailed as ineffective.

The governor’s office has refused to publicize the task force reports; the Dec. 6 report was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. One reason may be the unvarnished nature of the task force’s warnings. “Florida is in the red zone for cases,” the report notes, citing “unrelenting community spread and inadequate mitigation.” It called for the state and local governments to redouble efforts, encouraging greater use of masks, social distancing, increased testing and limits on indoor gatherings. “Mitigation efforts must increase,” the report warned, before adding in boldface: “Begin warning about any gathering during (the) December holidays.”

Of course, DeSantis is taking his own tack. He has ruled out any further business restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, arguing such measures do not work and harm the economy. While the report noted that Florida was doing better in some metrics than other states, such as in the rise in new cases, the task force said that “rankings are almost irrelevant as the entire country is surging.” While other states have moved proactively to contain the recent surge, DeSantis has chosen instead to focus public attention on the arrival of vaccines, which began to trickle into the Tampa Bay area on Monday. But the White House warned that simply waiting for a vaccine was not practical.

“The current vaccination implementation will not substantially reduce viral spread, hospitalizations or fatalities until the 100 million Americans with comorbidities can be fully immunized, which will take until the late spring,” the task force report warned. “Behavioral change and aggressive mitigation policies are the only widespread prevention tools that we have to address this winter surge.”

Why has the governor refused to regularly provide these reports to news organizations? Is DeSantis trying to tamp down the experts’ advice, which runs counter to his strategy? Is he unwilling to have his position publicly challenged? Florida reported 11,699 new cases on Friday, the most since the state’s summer viral surge. What’d the governor do? He tweeted a photo that night of his family enjoying a high school football game, where they — like most in the crowd — were maskless. Setting a bad example has effectively become the state’s policy.

DeSantis is doing his own thing. Florida’s surgeon general is nowhere to be found. And the state’s mayors and local health care institutions are filling the leadership void. They should spare no effort to underscore the White House’s recommendations. Florida, and the nation, face a tough holiday and a long winter, and the public deserves to hear the experts’ advice.

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