The nearly two-week debate over whether to issue a statewide lockdown in Florida may have been the most important policy question Gov. Ron DeSantis will ever face during his time in office.
Some political debates are more consequential than others.
When thousands of lives are at stake, when hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake, when the personal freedoms of every Floridian are at stake and when the decision will help determine how long a massive disruption to daily life will last — well that’s about as consequential as it gets.
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The nearly two-week debate over whether to issue a statewide lockdown in Florida to slow the spread of coronavirus may have been the most important policy question Gov. Ron DeSantis will face during his time in office. It’s a decision that could define his governorship and his entire political career.
When this is all over, Floridians will look back and remember this as one of the most extraordinary moments in their lives, and they’ll remember what the government did — and did not do – during this critical period.
DeSantis could be dogged for the rest of his career by those who say he did not act quickly enough in a crisis, even as his supporters argue his approach was measured and prudent.
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California, Illinois and New York became the first three states to issue stay-at-home orders on Friday, March 20. DeSantis waited 12 days after those first orders to lock down Florida, and after more than 30 states already had issued stay-at-home orders.
The governor first addressed the issue on Monday, March 23 when he was asked about it by reporters.
DeSantis said a statewide lockdown was unnecessary, appearing to draw a firm line in the sand. A stay-at-home order is too "blunt" of an instrument and would cost too many jobs, he said.
"You simply cannot lock down our society with no end in sight,″ DeSantis said on March 23.
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Yet that’s exactly what Desantis did on Wednesday when he issued his "safer at home" executive order. The order expires on April 30, but anyone who has been following the coronavirus crisis knows it could be extended. Florida officials already have extended the state’s school closures twice.
As the number of cases and deaths rise, DeSantis likely will feel pressure to keep the lockdown in place into May, and possibly beyond.
So this is, indeed, a lockdown with no clear end in sight, exactly what DeSantis was trying to avoid.
But between March 23 — when DeSantis first rejected the idea of a lockdown — and his April 1 order asserting that every Floridian must stay home except to "obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities," Florida went from having 1,227 coronavirus cases and 18 deaths to 7,773 cases and 101 deaths.
The rapidly escalating outbreak and mounting death toll put DeSantis in the difficult position of having to justify not doing everything possible to save lives.
Every increase in the number of deaths wobbled the delicate balancing act DeSantis was trying to achieve between protecting public health and protecting jobs, making it harder to argue that the economic toll of a lockdown was too big of a price to pay when the human toll was becoming so profound.
Public health experts say the increase in coronavirus cases and deaths was predictable, which is why they advocate for lockdowns to be done early in an outbreak before case numbers explode.
DeSantis resisted that advice for nearly two weeks.
President Donald Trump also vacillated, issuing stringent social distancing guidelines but then saying last week that he wanted to open the country back up by Easter. Trump reversed course last Sunday and decided to keep the guidelines in place through at least the end of April.
DeSantis cited Trump’s decision as one reason he decided to go ahead with a lockdown.
What appears to have changed Trump’s mind – and in turn influenced DeSantis – are projections of many more COVID-19 deaths to come, and a health care system that will be overwhelmed by the crisis.
As of Thursday, a model developed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington was predicting between 39,966 and 177,866 COVID-19 deaths nationwide by Aug. 4, and between 1,679 and 18,558 deaths in Florida. The model also predicts that the nation will have a shortage of 19,863 hospital intensive care unit beds during the peak of the crisis, and a shortage of 860 ICU beds in Florida.
And those predictions — which have been cited by the White House as mirroring internal projections developed by the federal coronavirus taskforce — assume that every state will issue a lockdown. As of Thursday, 12 states had yet to do so.
A tsunami of COVID-19 deaths appears to be on the horizon. That’s hard for Trump or DeSantis or any politician to ignore.
Yet DeSantis faced pressure from within the GOP base to stay the course and hold off on a lockdown.
Many Republicans are skeptical, if not downright hostile, to the idea of ordering citizens to stay in their homes. They believe it unjustly infringes on personal liberties and is not worth the devastation that will be wrought on the economy.
Shortly after DeSantis issued his order Wednesday, Englewood tea party leader Randy McLendon sent an email to the governor voicing his fervent opposition to the move. McLendon described himself as a "strong and grateful supporter" of the governor.
"Keeping people safe is necessary and preferable. Keeping people working is essential," McLendon wrote. "You can never keep people completely safe, no matter how hard you try."
McLendon went on to write that it doesn’t do any good to keep grocery stores open as essential businesses if people don’t have enough money to buy food.
"I understand we are in a crisis, but adding a second crisis on top of a crisis is a – I don’t know what you would call a double crisis, except maybe a catastrophe," he wrote. "Please, please reconsider this and open us back up for business."
DeSantis is philosophically aligned with those who believe personal liberties are paramount. He was known as a Libertarian-minded congressman and has shown the same tendencies as governor, pushing to allow medical marijuana to be available in smokeable form, for example. He also has been deferential to business interests.
Those views likely are a big reason why he delayed implementing a lockdown for so long.
DeSantis’s admirers say he did the right thing by waiting.
"Thank God we have Gov. DeSantis and his leadership style and taking a measured step-by-step approach," said Sarasota state Sen. Joe Gruters, who also serves as the Florida GOP chair. "He’s looking at it on an hourly basis and making the best decisions in real time as they come in."
But DeSantis has faced a tidal wave of criticism from Democrats at the state and national level. He also has been pilloried on late night television and by national public health figures.
Talk show host Stephen Colbert mocked DeSantis’s restrictions on New Yorkers coming to Florida, while talk show host John Oliver said the governor wasn’t taking the outbreak seriously enough.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as Trump’s Food and Drug Administration commissioner between 2017 and 2019, took aim at DeSantis and the governor of Texas in a CNBC interview.
"I don’t understand why those governors have not acted more forcefully right now," Gottlieb said before DeSantis issued his stay-at-home order. "Especially when you look at a state like Florida. Florida has a very large epidemic underway. There’s multiple hot spots, they were probably seeded in early February. Now they have large clusters."
Democrats have been even more forceful, portraying DeSantis as dithering and indecisive, and warning that his delayed response would lead to more deaths.
"The faster we act, the more lives we save and the sooner we can rebound," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in one email that called for a lockdown.
In the span of just a few weeks, DeSantis went from being a governor with relatively high approval ratings and bipartisan support, to someone accused of fiddling while his constituents are dying.
It’s a tough pill to swallow when your critics essentially are saying you have blood on your hands, and politically it could be devastating.
Whether the issue ultimately comes to haunt DeSantis remains to be seen. There are no easy decisions right now for DeSantis and other elected leaders.
Even after issuing the lockdown order Wednesday, DeSantis continued to be criticized by those who say there are too many exemptions in the order, including a big one for religious services.
Meanwhile Florida health officials announced 27 more COVID-19 deaths Thursday morning.
And the worst is still to come.