GOP governors in hardest hit states split over COVID-19 response

The governors of the two largest Republican-run states are diverging in their responses to a massive surge in coronavirus cases.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisKey swing-state election lawsuits could help shape the presidential race First death reported from Hurricane Sally in Alabama Trump tells Gulf Coast residents to prepare for 'extremely dangerous' Hurricane Sally MORE, a major Trump ally in a key 2020 battleground, has consistently downplayed the severity of the outbreak even as it worsens in his state.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, has started taking steps to address the spike in cases, though not on the same scale as many Democratic governors or even some fellow Republican ones.

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Their actions underscore the varying degrees to which GOP governors are willing to follow President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE's lead in the fight against COVID-19.

DeSantis is a first-term governor who eked out a narrow victory in 2018 after being endorsed by Trump several times. Political observers believe that relationship has influenced his response to the outbreak.

"Clearly, they've been joined together politically, and DeSantis owes the fact that he is governor today to President Trump," said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida.

On Friday, when Florida reported nearly 11,500 new cases and almost 9,000 people hospitalized, DeSantis said he thinks cases are stabilizing.

Like Trump, DeSantis has largely been dismissive of the devastating impact of COVID-19 and at times antagonistic toward virus-related restrictions.

He has refused to issue a statewide mask order, cut funding for disease treatment in prisons and eliminated the state’s entire online learning budget.

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His position on masks aligns him with Trump, who has declined to issue a nationwide mandate for facial coverings in public. Before last weekend, Trump had repeatedly declined to wear a mask in public, even as Republican lawmakers had urged him to set an example for the country.

In Texas, another state where cases are surging, Abbott budged from some previous positions. He recently reversed his months-long opposition to masks, mandating them in certain counties. The mandate applies to most of the counties in the state, but some local sheriffs have said they will refuse to enforce it.

Ezemenari Obasi, a professor and associate dean of research at the University of Houston Health Research Institute, said that while the mandate will prove helpful, it still falls short of what’s needed.

"I appreciate that it must have taken a lot of courage for him to move forward with the latest executive order ... but it's also in very specific counties. That's not enough," Obasi said. "You've seen mayors and you see judges begging to be able to do more but can't because it would be more restrictive than state restrictions."

Houston's mayor has been pleading for the authority to issue a two-week shutdown to slow the spread of the virus, but has been rebuffed by Abbott.

Early in the pandemic, Florida and Texas were hailed as coronavirus success stories, and both governors were congratulated by the White House. As the virus raged across much of the Northeast, the two states saw very few infections, and were among the earliest to reopen businesses after short stay-at-home orders.

When infections first began to climb, both governors remained in lockstep with the administration. They denied the increase was because of opening too early, and instead attributed the number of new cases to more testing, echoing Trump’s view.

Now, the two states are among the worst hit in the country.

Texas had 10,256 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 174 more deaths, a one-day record. Officials have reportedly ordered more body bags and refrigerated trucks in anticipation of an increase in deaths.

Both states have seen at least three straight days with more than 100 deaths, but only Abbott, a second-term governor who has held statewide office since 2002, has acknowledged the seriousness of the situation.

"Each day the facts get worse," Abbott said Thursday during a video address to the Texas GOP Convention. "If we don't slow this disease quickly, our hospitals will get overrun, and I fear it will even inflict some of the people that I'm talking to right now."

Earlier in the pandemic, Abbott had banned local officials from instituting their own coronavirus mandates. But after hospitalizations began to rise, he allowed local governments to require businesses to mandate masks for customers and employees.

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Recently, he paused non-essential surgeries, and limited gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Additionally, Abbott closed bars in the state, but restaurants can continue to operate at 50 percent capacity indoors. Gyms remain open.

DeSantis, who also stopped bars from serving alcohol, recently changed his tone and began to acknowledge the massive increase in cases statewide. But he maintains that most of those getting infected are young people, and that hospitals have plenty of capacity.

Local officials and public health experts have been urging DeSantis to mandate masks statewide, requests he has denied.

"Unfortunately, what we have right now is a patchwork of policies ... and it's created all kinds of problems," said Jill Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. "When you have the mayor saying do it, and the governor saying it doesn't matter, then the citizens side with whosoever politics they align with."

Jewett, of the University of Central Florida, said polling indicates that state residents aren’t exactly pleased with DeSantis’s response to the crisis.

He noted that many governors, including Abbott, got high marks from voters for their handling of the virus in the spring. DeSantis, however, did not.

"It seems that ... the majority of Floridians are looking for a more proactive response than Gov. DeSantis has given. He just hasn't met what a lot of Floridians were looking for," Jewett said.