State Watch

DeSantis doubles down on Trump-backed coronavirus approach

ORLANDO, Fla. – While coronavirus cases surge nationwide and more and more governors give in to stricter public health measures, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is doubling down on his long-held strategy: No mask mandates, few closures and a focus on the economy. 

And he’s not the only one.

DeSantis, along with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), both staunch Trump allies, are maintaining an approach that mirrors the example set by the Trump administration. That’s left strategists wondering whether they are betting that sticking with President Trump will propel them to reelection or perhaps even to higher office. 

Florida on Tuesday became the third state to hit 1 million coronavirus cases. But unlike Texas and California, which have also hit the milestone, the state has shown no signs of ramping up restrictions. In fact, DeSantis is doing the exact opposite.

DeSantis extended an executive order last week that prohibits Florida cities from fining people for not following local mask mandates. Additionally, the order blocked cities and counties from ordering restaurants to shut their doors without showing economic or public health data to justify the move. 

“I’m opposed to mandates period. I don’t think they work,” DeSantis said at his first press conference in a month on Monday. “People in Florida wear [masks] when they go out. They don’t have to be strung up by a bayonet to do it.”

DeSantis’s refusal to move on mask mandates comes as other GOP governors around the country are reluctantly embracing the measure to curb the spread of COVID-19. GOP governors in Iowa, North Dakota and Ohio put at least partial mandates in place.

The governor’s supporters argue that DeSantis is pushing back on the restrictions with the state’s predominantly tourism- and hospitality-based economy in mind. 

“He gave each county the ability to do what they want to do,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “It’s the freedom of letting the counties decide what is best for them, which is going to ultimately serve him best with Florida voters.” 

However, the governor’s response to the virus has elicited a sharp reaction from critics ever since he was slow to issue a statewide stay-at-home order earlier this year. 

Fifty-two percent of Floridians said they disapproved of DeSantis’s handling of the virus, according to a Spectrum News-Ipsos survey released in October, before the presidential election. 

Still, the governor’s strategy, which reflects the one put forth by Trump and other Republicans in the 2020 election, does not appear to have negatively impacted Republicans in the state. Trump won Florida with 51 percent of the vote last month, while Republicans down the ballot in the state made gains in the House and state House. 

“Given the thought that DeSantis is in lockstep to a great degree with President Trump, then it would suggest that he’s in solid shape going into his reelection bid here in two years,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.

“Based on the pre-election polling, based on the exit polling, and based on the results of the election that Trump won, it seems to me absolutely … that there is a large bloc of voters that are either as concerned or more concerned with reopening the state, getting the economy going than they are with the pandemic itself,” he said. 

Noem has taken a similar route in South Dakota. Like DeSantis, she is up for reelection in 2022 and has been floated as a potential 2024 Republican presidential contender. Trump handedly won her state by a whopping 30 points. 

However, Noem has fallen under nationwide scrutiny for her handling of the pandemic amid skyrocketing cases.  

More than 80,000 South Dakotans have tested positive for the virus during the pandemic. Last week, the state saw a positivity rate of 41.07 percent, down from its record high of 58.42 percent earlier in November, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Despite the cases, Noem has stood by her move to not issue a mask mandate. 

“Some have said that my refusal to mandate masks is a reason why our cases are rising here in South Dakota, and that is not true,” Noem said at a news conference last month. 

Noem has said she wears a mask when “appropriate,” and has cited other states with rising cases like Wisconsin that have a mask mandate in effect. A number of cities in the state, including Sioux Falls, have given the green light to the mandates. 

Polling conducted last month indicates that Noem’s approval ratings are by no means underwater. A poll released earlier this month by South Dakota News Watch and the Chiesman Center for Democracy at the University of South Dakota showed 53.8 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat approved of Noem’s performance in 2020, while 40.9 percent said they strongly or somewhat disapproved. 

Strategists say that DeSantis’s and Noem’s immediate political futures could rest on how bad their states are impacted by the virus. 

“It kind of depends on how bad the coronavirus gets,” said John “Mac” Stipanovich, a veteran GOP lawyer in Florida who has worked for former Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez. “If it becomes catastrophic in Florida or South Dakota with hospitals full to overflowing, people dying left and right like in New York in the spring, that will hurt them.” 

But with a potential vaccine on the horizon, most agree that its efficiency will ultimately play a role in setting the playing field for elected officials like Noem and DeSantis in 2022 and beyond. 

“If vaccines are being distributed and given in spring and summer of 2021 and the memory of COVID begins to fade by the end of 2021, then they probably will not be greatly disadvantaged by their inaction,” Stipanovich said. 

In the meantime, though, with public health officials warning of a spike in cases over the holiday season, many think the situations in Florida and South Dakota could become grim. 

“[DeSantis] is betting on the short memory of the public and the nonoccurrence of a catastrophe,” Stipanovich said. 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID-19 pandemic Donald Trump economy reopening Florida Kristi Noem mask mandate Ron DeSantis South Dakota

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