Way before Marvel super heroes, we aging boomers had our own costumed heroes in the 1950s and ’60s. My main guy was the Lone Ranger, Kemo Sabe himself, he of the white stallion, silver bullets and faithful Indian companion.
I liked LR’s mask. He wore it not for health reasons, but because he was modest about his excellent deeds. And it gave him the anonymity to ride to the rescue throughout the untamed West. He was the scourge of crooked sheriffs and ran insurrectionist gangs out of many a Western town, “Who was that masked man?” townspeople would ask, after order was restored. “Hi yo, Silver,” came the answer, as he rode into the sunset to right wrongs elsewhere.
I guess by today’s standards, LR would be trolled as a vigilante. But I still like the mask. He was the only good guy wearing one. In old Western movies made by RKO and Republic Pictures, outlaws wore kerchiefs over their faces to rob banks and pillage towns. But Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy were bare-faced, and proud of it.
I always thought they were show-offy. Roy and Gene, with their lacquered guitars strapped on — why the axes anyway? — and Hoppy, in his black-studded costume. They were building their brand, I felt.
Only LR had the modesty to dress in beige, downplay his good deeds and pay for his own silver bullets. Extravagant way to shoot, yes, but it was on his own dime — he never charged the townspeople expenses for their security, didn’t ask for a tax abatement for his secret silver mine.
So here I am, thinking about masks again. And I’m not the only one. After 16 months of struggling against COVID in wild and wooly Florida, and a brief period of unmasked freedom, infection rates are up, variants running loose. In fact, Florida is number one in the U.S. with a bullet, so to speak.
To mangle my movie analogies, just when I thought I was free, they pull me back in.
To the vaccinated, the rising numbers are, for now, mostly an inconvenience. That’s just over 54% of us in Florida. But there have been vaccine-busting “breakthroughs” worldwide, the vaccines we got this spring may need boosters, and there’s the danger of those variant varmints.
For those who’ve refused vaccination, or want to “wait” longer, it could be a disaster in the making. Which means that vaccinated people like me, who are immunocompromised, will need to take precautions again.
Blood cancers, transplants, chemo recipients — the science is still fuzzy for us, even with two jabs. Antibody tests (not considered definitive), and even third shots, aren’t making the picture any clearer — yet. Only herd immunity, the result of widespread vaccination, will get us there. That was the real promise of vaccination in the first place. All in, everyone gets protected.
Declaring “personal freedom” during a pandemic makes as much sense as it would in the middle of a busy intersection, or a cattle stampede.
“Wait longer,” and the bad guys, the critters, get smarter, tougher.
Scientists say that it used to take 10 to 15 minutes of sustained exposure to become infected by COVID from someone else. With the delta variant, it takes 10 to 15 seconds. That is quick on the draw, townspeople.
When the bad news about new Florida infections came out, we all wondered what Gov. Ron DeSantis would do. His opposition to masks has already made him legendary. Though he advocated vaccination, he has relentlessly blocked every attempt to mandate masks statewide.
Of course, it’s a logical fallacy to support vaccination but oppose any mask mandates. Or to disdain them, as DeSantis has done, trotting around high-fiving his crowds, as he did most of last year. And DeSantis, a double-Ivy graduate, understands logic and fallacies.
Even if vaccine hesitaters now decide to convert — and even Fox News commentators have pivoted, without admitting remorse — they’ll need to be masked until the shots take effect. One ICU doctor in a neighboring Southern state just tweeted that COVID-stricken young patients about to go on ventilators begged her for the vaccine. She held their hands, murmuring, “I’m sorry, it’s too late.”
So in view of the surge, Floridians wondered, might DeSantis ease up? Give a little? Might he finally suggest some mask use, warn those most vulnerable — his own herd, his most avid unvaxxed followers?
The answer came this past week: No new mandates. Nada, nope.
In a hasty press conference, he called it a “seasonal virus,” which it may be, but summoned up memories of “It’s no worse than the flu.” He predicted it would subside, which it may, but it reminded us of “It’ll go away, like a miracle.” For those of us in danger now of being infected, or reinfected, as the numbers spike, well, I guess that’s the price of freedom.
Then the governor doubled down. In view of the surge, the American Academy of Pediatrics had just advocated masks for kids over the age of 2 this fall, regardless of vaccination. DeSantis, in another quick press conference, vowed to ban any federal mask mandates for schoolchildren. Kids hate masks, he said, and besides, they’re uncomfortable. There “wasn’t much science behind” masks in schools, he argued — of the recommendation by the nation’s leading association of children’s doctors.
This prompted the White House’s Jen Psaki to say DeSantis was putting children “at risk,” and that her kids had adjusted to the masks. (Hey, my grandkids, too.)
As to these rushed press conferences, well, this has been a very, very busy time for Ron DeSantis. Though he always finds time to opine on Fox News (sometimes he closes his own press conferences to all but Fox News), what his fans like is, that unlike mere commentators, or legislators, he’s an executive. He acts on things. Enacts things. A lot of things.
There was the anti-rioters bill that needed his attention, though no riots have taken place in Florida of late. Aimed at racial-incident looters, the agitator law was inconveniently timed. When some in the vote-rich Cuban American community in Miami hit the streets in solidarity with the demonstrations in Havana, it was entertaining to watch DeSantis pivot, saying, in effect, “I didn’t mean those demonstrators, amigos!”
This is the same state that gave us the famed stand-your-ground law by which, if you judge yourself to be threatened, you get to shoot the person dead rather than walk away. I always reassure my out-of-state friends that I don’t ever intend to threaten anyone in Florida, not even a snippy waiter.
DeSantis’ best-known preoccupation was in stopping vaccine-only cruises. He banned the cruise business from requiring proof of vaccination, citing infringement on personal freedom. I didn’t get that one; apparently he believes that it would infringe on the freedom of unvaccinated passengers to freely infect anyone they choose on giant enclosed floating virus traps. A federal appeals court finally ruled against him.
It’s a continuing curiosity to me how leaders who want less government and more freedom use more government to get less freedom.
Of course, the governor, apparently ticking off his MAGA cultural bucket list before 2024, was busy with yet more important governing duties — such as his latest legal sallies on the educational front: First he banned the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools, a move that historian Tim Snyder said would inhibit honest instruction about Jim Crow, and compared to Stalin’s “memory laws,” which banned instruction about the Soviet genocide in Ukraine.
Then, whipping out his signing pen yet again, DeSantis decreed that all students and teachers at Florida state universities should be surveyed on “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at their campuses annually. He warned that university budgets might be cut if the results didn’t show more “diversity,” that is, more rightward sway in the palmy groves of academe.
It’s instructive, and a fusillade from past culture wars, to see DeSantis, the elite Ivy-educated pol, evoke memories of another governor — George Wallace — to go after “pointy-headed professors” to purge, yes … commies on campus!
So I wondered how much time the governor might have for the changing COVID realities. Despite some decent moves — such as keeping kids in school, attending to institutionalized seniors — he has, at best, a lethally mixed record at handling the pandemic. That his followers consider it an unqualified success is testament to excellent spin.
Though he had ideal, uniquely COVID-resisting weather going for him all last year, and could have led all states even while favoring businesses, Florida nevertheless ended up in the middle of the pack on infections and fatalities.
He teamed up with the let-’er-rip loonies who had Trump’s ear. He ordered 1 million doses of Hexachloroquine, never used. He resisted the simplest mitigation of all, mask mandates. He pleased his base, but 38,000 people died, overwhelmingly seniors, many unnecessarily. (One study argued that four-fifths of fatalities could have been avoided with simple mask mitigation.)
And instead of getting slammed for it, he’s been rewarded by becoming a front runner — the front runner in one poll, ahead of Trump — among Republican voters in the presidential race for 2024. It’s an accomplishment, for sure. What ex-Marshal Don now thinks about Deputy Ron isn’t known; we’ll have to wait for the next episode of this serial.
DeSantis remains apparently slavish to Trump. (With an asterisk.) It was DeSantis, after all, who drew national attention during his race for governor with TV commercials in which he used his young children to advertise his suppliance to Donald Trump. I thought it took a special kind of nasty wit to feature your cute kids in a commercial where they play with blocks in order to — ha-ha — “build a wall” to keep out desperate immigrants.
With the same lacerating Trumpian style, he went after a revered hero of the libs. This month, he began advertising T-shirts on his website with the slogan, Don’t Fauci My Florida. Cute, but it’s about a 79-year-old public servant who endured a year of unrelenting MAGA abuse, and probably saved many thousands of lives, getting a final boot in the teeth from DeSantis as the pandemic seems to be ending. Which it isn’t.
DeSantis can throw out Trumpy red meat, but he also serves up the occasional avocado toast. He appeared compassionate about the collapsed condo in Miami, even posing with the usurper, Joe Biden. But behind the scenes (asterisk), the ambitious young governor leaked crispy little croutons to the press claiming he’d suggested that Trump postpone his rally in Sarasota out of respect. Trump didn’t bite.
In Florida, social distancing may be a careless thing, but political distancing is exquisitely careful.
Of course, a governor’s day is never dull, especially if he has eyes set beyond his own fences. Besides thumping the bass drum for the base, DeSantis was working on behalf of Floridians everywhere. Last weekend, he actually followed them out of state, to the Texas border with Mexico. Besides inspecting the Florida law-enforcement agents he unaccountably sent to Texas, his cowpal, Gov. Gregg Abbott, may have needed a posse to arrest a passel of maverick Democrat legislators.
Florida Man, meet Texas Rattler.
Which brings us back to my favorite cowboy hero. Masked, the Lone Ranger rode the range, bringing honor, law and due process to the untamed Southwest. Here in the Southeast, we have our own unmasked rider, spreading his own brand of order. It seems he’s a-rarin’ to break out of his Sunshine State corral in 2024. With a wary eye on ex-Marshal Don, Deputy Ron looks ready to ride out and enforce right thinking across all the rolling plains of the Republic. Hi yo, watch out.
Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner).