UPDATE (Aug. 27, 2021, 1:20 p.m. ET): A Florida state judge struck down Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates on Friday, arguing that school districts have the right to set mask policies.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has zealously opposed basic public health policies that would slow the spread of Covid-19 in his state, often in a manner that appears designed to garner support for a 2024 White House bid as a Trumpian firebrand.
DeSantis’ general approach of Covid denial is not resonating with most of his constituents.
But as Florida emerges as the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, we’ve seen a slide in DeSantis’ approval rating and a growing rebellion among school districts against his ban on mask mandates. What’s becoming increasingly evident is that his commitment to appealing to a hard-line conservative base is not just producing an unconscionable policy outlook — it’s also a risky political strategy that makes him look incompetent and weak and could endanger his chances of re-election in 2022.
It’s difficult to overstate the severity of Florida’s coronavirus crisis. The state currently leads the nation in average daily deaths, cases and hospitalizations by enormous margins. Hospitals are overflowing with gravely ill Covid patients, and one medical expert deemed Florida “a crisis of unprecedented proportions.”
But DeSantis has remained fixated on the notion that implementing commonsense policies for mitigating the spread of Covid-19 represents the rise of a “Faucian dystopia” and insisted at a right-wing conference this summer that conservatives must say "no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no [to] mandates."
He’s tried to block companies from requiring proof of vaccination, and he appears more focused on promoting monoclonal antibody treatment than boosting vaccination rates, which are critical to resolving his state’s crisis.
The most striking display of DeSantis’ policy extremism — and its political pitfalls — has been his ban on mask mandates in Florida’s school districts. When school districts began to defy his ban and institute mask mandates anyway, he responded by threatening to strip salaries from superintendents and school board members overseeing those districts.
But that hasn’t worked; more and more school districts have disregarded DeSantis’ ban — including at least two in which voters backed former President Donald Trump in 2020 — and the Biden administration even offered to compensate the school districts for DeSantis’ financial penalties, to support them in their resistance. Currently, at least 10 school districts, representing a majority of Florida’s schoolchildren, are defying DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.
With a growing rebellion on his hands — some of it taking place in Florida’s Trump country, which should be DeSantis’ base — DeSantis doesn’t look like a tough leader; he looks like an ineffectual one.
It’s not just optics. There is a tangible public health crisis among children in Florida. Florida led the nation in pediatric hospitalizations in August, and in at least one county, children ages 5 to 14 account for the majority of new cases. It’s simply impossible to ignore the reality that children are getting terribly sick and that the governor has embraced a policy approach that not only jeopardizes their safety, but also seeks to punish those who would try to push for their safety in the face of his extremism.
That punitive streak is also a potential liability for him. A new Quinnipiac University poll indicates that DeSantis’ policy of withholding pay from leaders of school districts for defying his mask ban is massively unpopular, with a majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans agreeing that it’s a “bad idea.”
Beyond the question of punishing superintendents, DeSantis’ general approach of Covid denial is not resonating with most of his constituents. That poll found strong majorities of around 60 percent of Floridians support wearing masks indoors; think the recent surge in cases in Florida was preventable; and support mask mandates in schools. A plurality believe DeSantis is hurting efforts to slow Covid-19 in his state.
If DeSantis isn’t able to win re-election, his 2024 White House prospects could take a lethal blow.
Widespread dissatisfaction with DeSantis’ handling of Covid ultimately carries bigger risks for him in the long term. Recent surveys shows his job approval sliding underwater as Florida’s crisis deepens, and surveys from St. Pete Polls and Public Policy Polling show him neck and neck with the leading Democratic hopefuls for Florida’s 2022 gubernatorial election. If DeSantis isn’t able to win re-election, he will look like a failed politician and his 2024 White House prospects could take a lethal blow.
So DeSantis faces a dilemma. He might wager that doubling down on the "Make Covid Great Again'' ethos and devoting shocking amounts of time to boasting about how he’s a conservative bad boy on Fox News are the best ways to gain name recognition for 2024. But the cost of his posturing is the lives of Floridians — and their respect for him as a leader.