On Saturday, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republican leaders turned the backyard of the governor’s mansion into a GOP gloatfest with a pandemic twist.
Some of the top players in the party that has overseen coronavirus chaos in the Sunshine State tweeted photos and a video of DeSantis addressing a crowd of roughly 50 GOP grassroots organizers. Almost no one appeared to be wearing masks—including DeSantis, who had appeared with a mask at Donald Trump’s strange vaccine summit in D.C. on Tuesday.
One of the images, tweeted by Florida Republican Party Vice-Chairman Christian Ziegler, shows a maskless DeSantis from behind, facing his guests, a majority of whom were elderly—a population at especially high risk of death by way of COVID-19. Ziegler boasted: “Florida is in great hands and everyone in this photo is going to work like hell to crush whomever runs against him in order to keep it going.”
The GOP official retweeted the same photo the following day. This time, he identified another reliable target of Republicans and DeSantis: “It’s gonna be fun working for him and crushing the Socialists in Florida.”
The Florida GOP chairman, state Sen. Joe Gruters, tweeted a photo of the crowd from a different angle that showed him flanking the governor. Gruters wrote: “Thank you Governor @GovRonDeSantis for loving freedom and liberty and for all of your help in delivering record success this cycle here in Florida.”
Gruters also tweeted a two-minute clip of DeSantis, who slyly suggested he still backed the current commander-in-chief’s false narrative that Joe Biden only won the presidency because of massive election fraud.
“In Florida, people can have the confidence that this [election] was done above board and done right,” DeSantis crowed. “We don't wait three weeks to then change the winner with vote dumps and all this other stuff that you are seeing go around.”
Gruters, Ziegler and the GOP footsoldiers lapped it up, cheering their governor. But MAGA conspiracies aside, the scene was an emphatic prelude to the trouble a new Biden administration faces in coronavirus-skeptical states like Florida, where DeSantis has tripled down on a strategy that scoffs at mask mandates and non-essential business shutdowns and allows large gatherings of people.
In the meantime, experts said, he could have put his own diehards at risk.
“Unfortunately this event contradicts the advice of public health experts in a large number of ways,” infectious disease expert and University of South Florida professor Dr. Jill Roberts told The Daily Beast. “This event may have needlessly exposed people to coronavirus.”
Roberts added that while no cases have been linked to the affair as of yet, it was “entirely possible” DeSantis had hosted a so-called superspreader event given the close proximity of the attendees who were not wearing masks.
Gruters, Ziegler, and a spokesperson for DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In the months leading up to the election and in its immediate aftermath, DeSantis has stood out for his cowboy approach to the pandemic. One of the last governors to lock his state down, he was especially aggressive in opening it back up again, and has refused to issue a mask mandate. More recently, a Sun-Sentinel investigation found that the governor and his administration ordered Department of Health officials at the county level not to discuss COVID-19 with the public during the run-up to the election.
The governor's office disputed the paper's characterizations, insisting DeSantis has been consistent in promoting COVID-19 precautions. But from reopening bars arbitrarily to pressuring schools to hold classes in-person, the governor has been slammed by virtually every pressure group imaginable for pandemic recklessness.
At the same time, DeSantis has enabled COVID-19 deniers by hiring an Uber-driving conspiracy theorist as a data analyst and allowing his staff to share death records with a conservative blogger who has written columns downplaying the severity of the pandemic.
During a Nov. 30 press conference, DeSantis reiterated his false claims that mask mandates and lockdowns are ineffective in fighting the spread. Regarding masks, DeSantis said, “I don’t think you have to (be) strung up by a bayonet to do it. Fining people is totally overboard.”
His position is in direct conflict with Biden’s plan to ask Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days of his administration and mandating mask-wearing for interstate travel on planes, trains, and buses. DeSantis is also handicapping efforts by the new mayor of Miami-Dade, the county with the largest number of coronavirus cases in the state and that is experiencing a third surge, from reinstating fines for not wearing masks. County Mayor Daniella Levina Cava, who revealed last week she had contracted COVID-19 herself, said during a Dec. 4 Zoom call that she has been unable to speak with DeSantis since the election, according to the Miami Herald.
The images of the GOP event at the governor’s mansion didn’t generate headlines, but have been retweeted several hundred times, including by some of DeSantis’ harshest critics. Among them: Orlando state Rep. Anna Eskamani and Rebekah Jones, Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard architect and former Health Department data scientist who alleges she was fired because she refused to manipulate data about Florida’s coronavirus numbers.
On Monday, after state police raided her home with guns drawn to seize her computer and cellphone, Jones accused the DeSantis administration of targeting her by initiating a criminal investigation. According to a search warrant, however, someone using Jones’ IP address illegally accessed the state’s emergency alert email system to send an unauthorized mass email, an allegation she disputes.
“DeSantis has been trying—and failing—to shut me down and silence me since May,” Jones told The Daily Beast. “It didn't work then, and it won't work now.”
Eskamani, the state legislator, said the photos depicted a wanton disregard for COVID-19 guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), such as encouraging people to wear masks when they are in close contact with one another even when outdoors. In September, DeSantis eliminated most of the state’s measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including an executive order that limited social and recreational gatherings to no more than 10 people.
“The photos demonstrated how reckless our governor is acting in enabling the spread of COVID-19,” Eskamani told The Daily Beast. “He is not modeling good behavior and is taking his role for granted. It’s completely discouraging.”
Ignoring the increases in cases, hospitalizations, and data continuously demonstrating that social distancing works—not to mention the incredible stress faced by health-care workers at the moment—is “rather tone-deaf,” Roberts added. On Dec. 5, the day of the event, the Florida health department reported more 10,000 cases for the third consecutive day. Since then, the state added roughly another 23,000 new cases, bringing Florida’s cumulative total to 1,073,770 cases since the pandemic began.
As for the GOP gathering, the precedent set by what appears to have been a superspreader event at the White House Rose Garden party touting the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett loomed. Dr. Marissa Levine, another University of South Florida infectious disease professor, said even outdoor, well-ventilated events can be considered high-risk when there is a large turnout, no face coverings, and prolonged contact time.
But with cases setting new records nationwide, DeSantis seemed determined to set a new bar for pandemic absurdity.
“It certainly does not send the right message with respect to our efforts needed to control the pandemic at this time,” Levine said.