Fabiola Santiago: Gov. DeSantis mishandled COVID — and we're back to widespread transmission in Florida

©Miami Herald

US President Donald Trump (R) and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis hold a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair, Florida, July 31, 2020. - SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

This is the story of another coronavirus tragedy foretold.

At the end of October, during a road trip to north Florida, I began to double mask.

The anti-maskers, the mask danglers — and the geniuses who wear them below their noses and under their chins — ruled the scene everywhere, except hospitals and doctors’ offices. From service plazas on the turnpike and rest stops on I-95 to the aisles of stores and indoor cafes, people disregarded signs telling them that masks were required.

I felt that I had to compensate for such stupidity with extra safety precautions. Needless to say, I was the only person using gloves to pump gas, even though many Shell gas stations had boxes of them available in plain sight.

There was zero enforcement of COVID-19 rules. Nobody was keeping their distance, either. The scenes reminded me of Third World cities I’ve visited where stop signs are optional.

“It’s the governor’s fault,” a cashier at a Jacksonville Publix told me when I complained about both employees and customers dissing mask rules. “There’s nothing we can really do about it.”

Yes, as predicted, after reckless Gov. Ron DeSantis relaxed restrictions on public gatherings in September to make it seem appropriate to stage all those Trump-Pence rallies — and he banned local governments from penalizing people who refuse to wear masks — Floridians took his misguided decisions as permission to let their guard down.

Those charged with enforcement either felt powerless to do anything about violations or were all too happy to have an excuse not to play the role of enforcer.

Three weeks later, as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, the number of COVID-19 cases across all of Florida is soaring, hospitalizations are rising and people are dying at higher rates again.

The upward trend has held for a month.

At one point last week, the rate of people testing positive for the coronavirus reached 10.4% in Miami-Dade. Hospitals also reported that half of patients who came in for car accidents or ailments tested positive for COVID-19, evidence of widespread transmission.

MAYORS WANT LOCAL CONTROL

Like the Publix cashier, Florida’s mayors know who is to blame, who set the stage for this to happen: DeSantis, who is peddling and pursuing a risky “herd immunity” theory that experts have warned will cost thousands of lives.

“Utter and complete junk,” Dr. Aileen Marty, epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at Florida International University, has called the strategy of allowing the virus to spread freely in the state until most of the population becomes infected or is vaccinated. “Nonscientific, super dangerous — and no worthy scientist or physician would give it a second glance.”

Five mayors who are listening to the science — from Miami-Dade and Broward counties, plus the mayor of St. Petersburg — have asked DeSantis to impose a statewide mask mandate. And most important, to reinstate local control over COVID-19 restrictions, improve contact tracing and ramp up state-funded testing.

“Blue-collar, working city, huge numbers — and we went through hell on the first phase,” said Carlos Hernandez, a Republican like the governor and mayor of Hialeah, one of the hardest hit cities in the state.

How DeSantis has handled the pandemic “makes no sense whatsoever,” he said.

“It’s always been a lack of communications between the state and local government,” Hernandez said.

There’s so much more than an easily fixed communication problem.

One of the pervasive items on the Florida Republican Party’s agenda has been the practice of strong-arming locals into following their playbook on hot-button issues like gun laws, for example.

They’re doing the same with COVID, even though the course of the coronavirus infection has unfolded differently in rural areas and urban centers, each with their own set of challenges — and one same need, an enforceable mask mandate to prevent transmission.

So my only question is: Why are only five mayors pressuring the governor to act more responsibly?

Lenny Curry, the mayor of Jacksonville, which supposedly has a mask mandate for everyone over age 6 in place through Thrusday, has answered that question frankly.

“People need to make decisions that are responsible … I’m not going to act (like) some authoritarian, you know, telling people exactly how they should live their lives,” he told News4Jax.

That’s hogwash.

Florida politicians are only picking and choosing what civil liberties they want to curtail. Curry is being a good soldier, following the party line.

There’s a high price to pay for politicizing the deadly virus, which isn’t like the flu.

If the surge continues at the current rate, the number of infected in Florida during the duration of the pandemic could reach 1 million by year’s end. We’re past the 905,000 people infected — the bulk from contact with an infected person and not from travel — and we’re nearing 18,000 deaths.

Again, people in South Florida are waiting hours in long lines to get tested. Again, health care workers and systems are being taxed. Again, some items are starting to disappear from grocery store shelves or are being sold in limited quantities to prevent hoarding.

“Failing pretty horribly,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber called Florida’s approach to managing the pandemic — and he’s right.

WRONG FROM THE START

This third surge is a replay of early misfires.

From the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Florida, DeSantis made terrible choices driven by ignorance, public relations bids (remember the lab coat show) and purely political plays.

But Curry is right about one thing.

This tragic third round is the people’s fault, too.

They should know better but are acting like cult followers of a leader who shuns masks and credible experts.

It doesn’t, however, let DeSantis off the hook.

The responsibility to lead on the pandemic, to model safe behavior and to tell people that they must wear a mask for the same reason they wear seat belts — to save lives — lies at the top.

Gov. DeSantis mishandled COVID — and we’re back to widespread transmission in Florida.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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©2020 Miami Herald