Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been at each other’s throats over their respective COVID-19 responses, with the former president knocking DeSantis for his handling of the pandemic, and the governor hitting Trump for his relationship with Dr. Anthony Fauci and his stance on vaccines.
Trump ramped up his attacks on the governor following DeSantis’ presidential announcement in late May, claiming that former Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo handled COVID-19 better. DeSantis’ campaign has fired back, leaning into the governor’s COVID record and releasing an ad Monday with AI-generated images of Trump hugging Fauci, after the former president persistently hammered the governor over lockdowns.
Their respective records, however, reveal a complicated picture, with Trump and DeSantis each evolving in their response to COVID-19 as the pandemic continued.
‘Continues To Lie’
“Under Ron DeSanctimonious as Governor, Florida was the third WORST State in Deaths by Covid. So why do they say that DeSanctus did a good job? New York had fewer deaths! Also, he shut down the State, and even its beaches (unlike other Republican Governors),” Trump wrote May 30 on Truth Social.
In 2020, New York had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, and though Florida was fourth, the Sunshine State had a significantly lower death rate than New York at 56.4 to 139.1, respectively, according to the CDC. In 2021, Florida’s death rate exceeded New York’s, though New York had more deaths total during the first two years of the pandemic.
DeSantis’ response to COVID-19, which was widely seen at the time as significantly less restrictive than other governors, helped elevate the Florida executive to the national stage. However, the Trump campaign has attempted to portray DeSantis as a proponent of severe restrictions, arguing that he imposed “radical” lockdowns.
“President Trump saved millions of lives, opposed mandates, and embraced the Federalist system to allow States to make the decisions best for their people. Ron DeSantis continues to lie about his record, as he personally oversaw mass vaccinations and imposed radical lockdowns,” the Trump campaign said in a press release shared with the DCNF upon request for comment.
While DeSantis would later become a fierce critic of lockdowns, school closures and mask mandates, particularly in the classroom, the governor did initiate COVID-19 restrictions early in the pandemic.
DeSantis began COVID-19 restrictions in early March, citing guidance from the Trump administration, where he closed down some non-essential businesses like bars and nightclubs, limited restaurant capacity while encouraging them to stay open and restricted beach access for larger groups. Guidance for counties with higher population densities like Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward remained more strict.
The governor has recently argued that he fought the Trump administration’s recommended restrictions during the pandemic, and that “tens of thousands” of people “fled” Cuomo’s state to Florida, according to a June 1 campaign radio interview forwarded to the DCNF upon request for comment.
“Hell, his whole family moved to Florida under my governorship, are you kidding me?” DeSantis said.
The governor later broke from the Trump administration’s guidance during his push to reopen Florida, putting him in conflict with Fauci.
“That was a difficult situation. We didn’t have all the facts,” said DeSantis. “But we all have to sit here today in 2023, look back on March of 2020 and say, ‘Faucism was wrong. Faucism was destructive.'”
Dr. Anthony Fauci
After the first COVID-19 case was discovered in Washington state on January 20, the Trump administration quickly formed the Coronavirus Task Force, with Fauci serving as a member. After several weeks of COVID-19 press briefings, Trump praised Fauci for becoming “a major television star for all the right reasons” and for being “just so professional, so good.”
However, the two began to clash about guidelines, and Trump promoted a tweet that said doctors and the CDC were “lying,” and another that criticized Fauci. Trump ramped up attacks on Fauci as the presidential election approached, often for his stance on masks, but said despite their disagreements, they got along “very well” and he liked him “personally.”
Additionally, Trump disagreed with Fauci about reopening businesses, tweeting that the country should “reopen” in May 2020.
Early on in the pandemic, DeSantis, too, frequently consulted the recommendations of Fauci and other members of the Trump administration’s task force, and thanked them for their support. On March 3, 2020, he shared a COVID-19 article written by Fauci and other doctors, which he said was a “useful” resource.
“You have a lot of people there who are working very, very hard, and they’re not getting a lot of sleep,” DeSantis said in March 2020. “They’re really focusing on a big country that we have. And from Dr. Birx to Dr. Fauci to the vice president who’s worked very hard, the surgeon general, they’re really doing a good job. It’s a tough, tough situation, but they’re working hard.”
Of course, DeSantis quickly became a critic of Fauci, breaking with him over reopening the state in late spring and early summer 2020, before beginning to regularly criticize him over his guidance in early 2021.
’15 Days To Slow The Spread’
Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, which freed up over $42 billion in resources for state and local governments. Days later, the administration announced the now-infamous “15 days to slow the spread” guidance encouraging people to stay at home, which was eventually extended through April 30.
On March 9, DeSantis signed an order declaring a public health emergency in Florida, and at the direction of the Trump administration the following week, he closed bars and nightclubs, restricted beach gatherings, and limited restaurant service to 50% capacity, but encouraged them to stay open.
By mid-March, the governor recommended colleges and universities go remote for the remainder of the semester, and signed an order shutting down gyms, mandating restaurants close for in-person dining and requiring liquor be sold in sealed containers.
DeSantis asked the president to declare Florida a major federal disaster area, urged elderly people with preexisting conditions to remain home for two weeks and required those entering the state to quarantine for 14 days if coming from an area with “substantial community spread.”
DeSantis issued a stay at home order on April 1, limiting activity to essential services only for 30 days. On April 18, he announced that all K – 12 schools remain closed for the rest of the school year.
In early May, DeSantis began reopening the state, making Florida one of the first to roll back COVID-19 restrictions. DeSantis allowed restaurants, retail stores, libraries and museums to open at 25% capacity. On June 3, DeSantis announced that bars and restaurants could operate at 50% capacity, and unveiled a plan to reopen K – 12 schools at “full capacity” by August.
DeSantis signed an order on September 25 allowing restaurants and bars to reopen at full capacity, asserting his power over the localities and barring them from instating further COVID-19 restrictions, which he extended in November. After extending Florida’s state of emergency several times, it expired June 27, 2021.
Masks And The Vaccine
Though Trump was rarely seen wearing a mask, his task force persistently recommended them. By mid-June, Trump urged mask wearing “if necessary.” He became critical of Fauci for changing his tune on mask wearing, as he initially said they’d do little to help.
“Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don‘t see it,” Trump said.
In the first few months of the pandemic, DeSantis was often pictured wearing a mask, and the governor thanked Trump in April 2020 for supplying Florida with N95 masks. DeSantis never mandated wearing masks, and defended parents’ rights to choose whether their child wore one to school.
Trump announced the COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020, and frequently credited his administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” for its quick creation. The former president awarded Fauci and others with the “Presidential Commendations” to recognize the doctors’ efforts in inventing the “gold standard vaccine.”
“In order to achieve this goal, we harnessed the full power of government, the genius of American scientists, and the might of American industry to save millions and millions of lives all over the world,” said Trump.
DeSantis attended the vaccine announcement, and expressed excitement over Florida receiving the vaccines soon. In early December, he announced requirements to receive first doses, but insisted he wouldn’t implement mandates; the governor promoted vaccines in spring 2021, and said “we’ve embraced” them in early May.
After making the shots available, DeSantis signed legislation barring government agencies, schools and businesses from requiring proof of vaccination.
“Over the last year we’ve avoided protracted lockdowns and school closures in Florida because I have refused to take the same approach as other lockdown Governors,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.”
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