Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s record on the COVID-19 pandemic is in the spotlight as speculation builds that he will mount a White House campaign.
If he enters the race, DeSantis will pose the most serious threat to former President Trump’s quest for the GOP nomination.
Trump has reacted angrily to the speculation around DeSantis. The former president and his supporters believe the Florida governor has become a media favorite and has not faced sufficient scrutiny.
Team Trump argues this is particularly true of COVID, where DeSantis portrays himself as a ferocious defender of individual freedoms against government overreach.
Over the weekend, Trump complained to reporters that DeSantis was “trying to rewrite history.”
“There are Republican governors that did not close their states,” Trump said. “Florida was closed for a long period of time.”
The back-and-forth raises an obvious question: What did DeSantis actually do on COVID?
Here are some of the big moments that defined the governor’s response to the pandemic.
March 9, 2020: Declares a state of emergency
As the early stage of COVID-19 took hold — with infections confirmed in eight Florida counties — DeSantis declared a state of emergency.
His order designated Florida’s Director of the Division of Emergency Management as the state’s coordinating officer.
Notably, in light of DeSantis’s later professed concern with civil liberties, the order gave the coordinating officer the authority to “suspend the effect of any statute, rule or order that would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay any mitigation, response or recovery action necessary to cope with this emergency.”
In the same document, DeSantis ordered the state’s adjutant general to activate the Florida National Guard “as needed.”
DeSantis also advised caution and advocated social distancing for vulnerable Floridians in announcing the move.
“If you’re elderly or you have a serious, underlying medical condition, don’t get on a cruise ship right now,” he said. “Don’t get on a long flight where you could be exposed to the virus. Take certain steps to do what they call social distancing.”
April 1, 2020: Declares lockdown
Later than most governors, DeSantis imposed a lockdown.
“All persons in Florida shall limit their movements and personal interactions outside of their home to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential activities,” his order said.
An NPR report at the time noted that more than 30 other states had imposed lockdowns before Florida did so, and that those orders “affect more than 85 percent of the U.S. population.”
Presaging some of his late rhetorical fieriness over COVID, DeSantis complained within the text of the order about “many thousands of people [who] fled the New York City region to Florida…thereby jeopardizing the health and safety of Floridians.”
April 29, 2020: Moves to lift lockdown
DeSantis announced on April 29 that most of the state could begin its reopening process.
His order contended that his state had “achieved several critical benchmarks in flattening the curve.”
The genesis of DeSantis’s later argument that his policies protected Florida from greater economic harm can be seen here, albeit in milder form.
“The path to re-opening Florida must promote business operation and economic recovery while maintaining focus on core safety principles,” the order said.
It permitted restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity indoors. Retail stores, museums and liberties were also allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity. But DeSantis kept gyms closed, and prohibited bars and clubs from selling alcoholic drinks “for on-premises consumption.”
Notably, given DeSantis’s later blasts at public health officials, the order was explicitly couched as based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the Trump White House.
September 25, 2020: Ends lockdown
Having moved through another stage of easing restrictions in May and June, DeSantis moved to a more aggressive footing on reopening in late September.
This time, his order stated bluntly that his state had “suffered economic harm as a result of COVID-19 related closures.”
He also asserted that “no COVID-19 emergency ordinance may prevent an individual from owning or operating a business.”
The tone in this order was notably different from the start of the pandemic, as he prohibited any local government from restricting restaurants to less than 50 percent capacity. Any jurisdiction that wanted to hold restaurants under 100 percent normal capacity needed to explain its reasoning, he contended.
The order also suspended any fines or penalties on individuals related to COVID-19.
December 8, 2020: Attends Trump White House summit on vaccines
Trump, defeated one month before but still in office, held a high-profile event as the first COVID-19 vaccines were on the brink of winning approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Trump called the development of the vaccines at such speed “a monumental national achievement” and gave DeSantis a shout-out — “Great job, Ron” — in passing.
At a panel discussion with three other governors, DeSantis outlined plans to get vaccines to seniors in nursing homes and healthcare workers — and then to “the broader senior population.”
“This was the first vaccine that’s really been politicized, unfortunately,” said DeSantis. “And that’s going to be something that people are going to have to deal with.”
April 2021: Gets vaccinated
DeSantis, unlike some other prominent political figures, did not invite the media to see him getting vaccinated and did not immediately acknowledge he got the shot.
Instead, NBC Miami reported on April 7, 2021 that a spokeswoman had “acknowledged the governor’s vaccination during an interview.”
The TV station further noted that “it was later disclosed that the governor last week received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requiring only a single dose.”
July 21, 2021: Praises vaccines, advocates vaccinations
DeSantis expressed enthusiasm for people getting their shots during this phase of the rollout.
On a visit to St. Petersburg on July 21, according to the local Fox station, he “spoke for nearly seven minutes about the positives in getting vaccinated and how he believes authorities should be advertising the vaccine.”
“If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero,” DeSantis said, according to Fox 31. “If you look at the people that are being admitted to hospitals, over 95 percent of them are either not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all. And so these vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.”
September 21, 2021: Appoints anti-mandate surgeon general
DeSantis, despite his initial enthusiasm for vaccinations themselves, opposed mandates.
When it came time to appoint a new surgeon general in Florida, he chose someone who shared that belief: Dr. Joseph Lapado.
Lapado at an introductory news conference asserted, according to an NPR report, that “Florida will completely reject fear as a way of making policies in public health. So we’re done with fear.”
Lapado added: “Vaccines are up to the person; there’s nothing special about them compared to any other preventive measure.”
Lapado, who still serves as surgeon general, has remained a controversial figure. Critics say he has done little or nothing to counter misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Nov. 18, 2021: Signs ban on vaccine mandates
In early November 2021, DeSantis said his state would join several others in a legal suit protesting the Biden administration’s order requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to have those workers either be vaccinated or submit to a regular COVID-19 testing regimen.
Later that month, he signed a bill from the Florida legislature that banned vaccine mandates in relation to either private or state employers.
Additionally, the law prohibited school districts from having “face mask policies.”
In a news release accompanying the bill signing, DeSantis cast the move as an effort to protect jobs.
“Nobody should lose their job due to heavy-handed COVID mandates and we had a responsibility to protect the livelihoods of the people of Florida. I’m thankful to the Florida Legislature for joining me in standing up for freedom,” he said.
Jan. 21, 2022: Declines to say if he got a booster shot
As political polarization deepened around vaccines, interest grew over whether prominent Republican politicians would take booster shots.
Trump, asked whether he had got the booster at an event in December 2021 with conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly, was met with boos from an otherwise supportive crowd when he acknowledged his shot.
Later, Trump took aim at those whom he deemed evasive on the same question, calling them “gutless” and saying, “the answer is ‘yes’ but they don’t want to say it.”
At a Jan. 21, 2022 news conference, DeSantis was asked directly whether he had received a booster shot.
“That’s something that I think people should just make their own decisions on,” he said, according to an NBC Miami/Associated Press report. “I’m not going to let that be a weapon for people to be able to use. I think it’s a private matter.”
August 24, 2002: Attacks Fauci as ‘little elf’
DeSantis mounted a headline-grabbing attack against Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was then the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Asserting that the lockdowns had caused permanent damage to children, DeSantis told a crowd at a campaign rally, “I’m just sick of seeing him…Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”
Dec. 13, 2002: Calls for grand jury to investigate COVID vaccine ‘wrongdoing’
Fresh off a big reelection win in November — and with his reputation burnished for a possible presidential run — DeSantis announced that he wanted his state’s Supreme Court to empanel a grand jury.
The grand jury’s purpose, he said, would be to investigate “wrongdoing” in relation to COVID vaccines.
His argument, in essence, was that pharmaceutical companies may have exaggerated the efficacy of the vaccines and downplayed their dangers.
But critics contend he was stoking unwarranted vaccine skepticism for political purposes, even as the virus was still killing Americans.
Florida’s Supreme Court announced nine days later that it would accede to DeSantis’s request and set up the grand jury.
Jan. 17, 2023: Seeks to make mandate bans permanent
Pressing his case even further, DeSantis called on Florida lawmakers to make bans on mandates permanent.
The laws that he wants enshrined would make state bans on so-called vaccine passports and mask requirements open-ended. They would also bar businesses from firing people based upon their vaccination status. Bennet asks CEOs of Apple and Google to remove TikTok from app stores These House lawmakers broke from their parties on pandemic-related measures
The proposals would also make it more difficult for professional medical organizations to rebuke or penalize doctors accused of spreading misinformation. For DeSantis and his supporters, that measure amounts to a protection of the right to dissent.
DeSantis, in a statement, insisted that his state was “a refuge of sanity” when “the world lost its mind.”
Echoing a theme from his campaign, he called the state “freedom’s linchpin.”