BJust a month ago, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was on a winning lap. The state’s average rate of new Covid-19 infections was the lowest in the country, and a pet dog legislature was set to enact its sweeping new coronavirus measures, including a mask ban and vaccines in order to “strike a blow at freedom”.
There was no mention of the 61,500 Floridians who lost their lives to the virus.
Now, with the highly transmissible Omicron variant gaining a foothold in the United States and possibly already present in Florida, medics say, the robustness of the governor’s controversial measures may be about to receive a real first test.
And while health experts and DeSantis political opponents agree that it will soon know exactly how the state could be affected by a spread of the variant, they are worried. The rigidity of DeSantis’ anti-mandate laws, including removing the power of local authorities to adopt community protection measures based on conditions in their own areas, they say, could allow Omicron to circulate at a faster pace than it would otherwise.
Evan Jenne, co-leader of the Democratic minority in the Florida House of Representatives, accused DeSantis of equipping Florida with “concrete shoes.”
“At the start of the pandemic, a lot of carte blanche was given to local governments because it was they who had boots on the ground, it was they who saw what was happening and a lot of people were saved from premature death due to actions of local governments, ”he said.
“Insulating them, putting their hands behind their backs and lacing up concrete shoes, it’s just going to make things a lot more difficult. When you have a government the size of Florida, covering 22 million people, it will be less nimble and less nimble than smaller local governments and our local health departments.
“The fact that an executive branch takes away all that authority and that power is just not going to be a good move for public health in the future. “
Jenne and his fellow Democrats were vocal opponents of the measures, but were almost twice as numerous as Republicans in last month’s special legislative session called by DeSantis, a Donald Trump protege who is expected to run for president in 2024.
Since the summer, when his state had its highest coronavirus death rates since the start of the pandemic, DeSantis has also fought and fined school districts and local authorities for them. vaccine and mask warrants, offered $ 5,000 payments to unvaccinated police officers to work in Florida, and appointed tendentious Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a colleague skeptical of vaccine and mask warrants, as the new surgeon general of Florida.
“If Donald Trump says I’m not running for president again, Ron DeSantis will undoubtedly be the Republican candidate for president, and a lot of things you see him do is support that idea and reach out to him. based. and a particular segment of society that loves that stuff, ”Jenne said.
“Politically, I think it’s a wise decision. For public health, I think it is dangerous.
Other elected officials, health professionals and parents have also accused the governor of putting politics before science.
The notoriously thorny DeSantis, meanwhile, continues to portray himself as an advocate for Florida’s economy and citizen freedoms against the perceived tyranny of the Biden administration’s efforts to implement national mandates or blockades.
At a press conference this week to defend the new laws, the governor was asked about the Omicron variant and lashed out at a familiar target: what he sees as “corporate media” controlling the conversation around Covid-19.
“We are not going to Florida to allow any media hysteria to do anything to infringe on the individual freedoms of people with regard to any kind of variant Covid,” DeSantis said, before turning his attention to Biden and the Chief Medical Officer of the White House. advisor, Dr Anthony Fauci, a familiar training partner.
“In Florida, we won’t let them lock you up,” he said. “We won’t let them take your jobs, we won’t let them hurt your businesses, we won’t let them close your schools. “
Jay Wolfson, a distinguished professor of public health, medicine and pharmacy and associate vice president for health law at the University of South Florida, sees little chance that DeSantis will back down if Omicron moves to the state .
“I don’t expect the governor or the Florida legislature to change their position unless, God forbid, the death rate increases,” he said. “People will get sick, hospitals could be overcrowded, but unless people die, policies are unlikely to change. “
Wolfson noted that with DeSantis’ measures now enshrined in law, rather than executive orders that can more easily be challenged, he seems reluctant to challenge it. All Florida school districts that once had strict mask mandates for students and staff have now terminated them, although many said it was because classroom coronavirus cases have declined.
Meanwhile, Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, has dropped its requirement to vaccinate actors.
“There is no exemption for places where there is a higher risk of contact, like theme parks or a hospital, so you create an environment where it is more and more likely that people not. vaccinated people will be exposed and get sick, and people whose vaccinations have decreased in effectiveness could be exposed to those people and others and they could get sick, ”Wolfson said.
“But we don’t yet know to what extent the Omicron variant is both more contagious and more virulent. We roll the dice.