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Coronavirus: Gov. DeSantis' holiday season hasn't been jolly as criticism mounts

by John Pacenti

It’s been a tumultuous December for Gov. Ron DeSantis even as he touts the good news of the COVID-19 vaccines that could put an end to the pandemic.

CNN in the last week published a story on DeSantis subtitled, “Putting ‘politics in front of lives.’” It detailed how he blocked public messaging on COVID-19 in order to paint a rosier picture.

Along the same vein, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported the aberration of how the state report on COVID-19 deaths dropped in the days surrounding the Nov. 3 general election.

Both reports came on the heels of national headlines about how the Florida Department of Law Enforcement raided the home of DeSantis’ No. 1 critic on reporting COVID-19 cases and deaths: former state coronavirus data scientist Rebekah Jones.

The governor last week also picked fights with Pfizer, the maker of the first vaccine available, as well as Walgreens and CVS, the pharmacies tasked with inoculating the vast majority of seniors at long-term care facilities in the state.

All in all, it has not been a very jolly holiday season for the Republican.

Like his benefactor, President Donald Trump, DeSantis had taken a pugilist's approach to COVID-19 restrictions, preferring to paint a sunnier picture of the pandemic.

Palm Beach County political analyst Brian Crowley told The Palm Beach Post that DeSantis’ efforts to change the messaging during a pandemic is akin to trying to downplay a Category 5 hurricane.

“The virus doesn't really care what your political opinion is. Just like a hurricane doesn’t care about what your political opinion is,” Crowley said. “You either deal with the reality of the storm or you don’t, and if you don’t, then you put people at risk.”

DeSantis also this week said the virus isn't transmitted readily in restaurants and bars, though health officials have said that many such establishments turn into nightclubs after hours that are packed with young people without masks. The governor has said he would "stand in the way" of any municipality that tries to restrict restaurants.

DeSantis gave the green light for restaurants to reopen fully in September. Now the state is seeing the number of daily cases reach levels not seen since July.

“The evidence at this point shows restaurants are not significant drivers (of the pandemic),” he said at a news conference Tuesday outside the Okeechobee Steakhouse in West Palm Beach.

DeSantis, who has often taken jabs at New York for its handling of the coronavirus, cited a study from that Empire State that found only 1.4% of COVID-19 cases have been traced to bars and restaurants. But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just imposed another ban on indoor dining.

In fact, governors across the country ‒ including some Republicans ‒ have started to re-enact even some modest restrictions in order to blunt the winter surge of COVID-19.

And on deck is the height of Florida’s tourist season, as residents from northern states where the virus is thriving head south for the sunshine. Also, with many offices still on lockdown and workers working remotely, families have relocated to Florida.

DeSantis' laissez-faire approach to restaurants and bars flies in the face of warnings from public-health officials.

In the daytime hours of Sept. 13, a Sunday, residents of Boca Raton could see a party-like atmosphere at the Aloha Food Shack, on North Federal Highway near Northwest 20th Street.

Most of the patrons appeared to be in their 20s. With loud music blasting, no social distancing and few people wearing masks, customers appeared to be aware they were flaunting the pandemic, giving a thumbs-up to aghast residents who stopped to take photos of the crowd.

An employee hung up on a Post reporter on Saturday seeking comment.

Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner said it’s hard to discern from photos if Aloha was breaking COVID-19 standards set by the county because it was outside and customers were in the act of eating.

However, Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Health for Palm Beach County, on Tuesday implored restaurants to take the virus seriously.

“They need to maintain the mask order, make sure the people inside their businesses are maintaining the distance. If they get up from their tables at restaurants and things, that they keep their masks on when they wander around the restaurants,” Alonso told county commissioners.

“The virus is out there. It is strong. This isn't over and we can’t let our guards down."

On Saturday, the state notched 11,682 new COVID cases, a decrease from the last two days. The totals on Thursday and Friday were the highest number of daily cases since mid-July.

The state has now compiled 1,193,165 cases since the start of the pandemic, more than any state except California and Texas.

There were 74 additional COVID-19 deaths recorded Saturday in the state. There have now been 20,764 total deaths in Florida since the start of the pandemic and 1,843 in Palm Beach County.

The county had 571 additional cases on Saturday, a decrease over the last two days where cases have been more than 700. There have been a total of 76,143 COVID-19 infections in the county for the year.

The state's dashboard attributed no new coronavirus deaths to Palm Beach County, keeping the total at 1,843.

The positivity rate for Florida on Saturday was 6.91%, a number that shows the prevalence of the disease in the community.

For the last two weeks, the positivity rate remained well above the 5% level that health officials said is necessary to sustain for two weeks before meaningful steps can be taken to contain the virus.

And what has DeSantis done to lead by example? This month, he attended a high school football game in front of a packed crowd in Niceville and was photographed without a mask. And on Monday, he held a holiday party in Tallahassee, inviting 160 lawmakers.

In contrast, the Guatemalan Maya Center in Lake Worth was scheduled to hold its annual Christmas party on Saturday night as a drive-thru event.

“We always have a Christmas party to celebrate our community. Our children are in need and wouldn’t otherwise receive Christmas presents. So we found a way,” said Lindsay McElroy, an administrative assistant with the center.

Even Santa would be socially distant, as he was to keep a cutout tree between him and the children in the cars at the event at Sunset Ridge Park in Lake Worth Beach.

Families were to receive homemade tamales, candy canes, a fresh food basket and, of course, gifts for the children.

The main task at hand right now for the center is allaying fears about the vaccine.

There is definitely skepticism, McElroy said: “There are some superstitions being spread around, and we are working very hard to catch them at the root.”

While community leaders take matters into their own hands, DeSantis is making national headlines for his lack of transparency about the virus.

CNN, interviewing more than a dozen Florida officials and experts, reported in its story that the state health department social media feeds have barely mentioned COVID-19 in months. The cable news network found the governor blocked local governments from enforcing their own measures to protect residents, sidelined health experts and promoted questionable science.

Even Republican municipal officials said they couldn’t get the governor to return their telephone calls and letters asking for more flexibility.

"I gave up talking to the governor a while back," Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez told CNN. "It's a large city here, but I feel sometimes we have been left alone."

With criticism mounting about lack of transparency, news organizations have filed a lawsuit to obtain copies of White House task for reports going back two months that the DeSantis administration has refused to release.

The Sun-Sentinel found that the state manipulated a backlog of unrecorded fatalities around the time of the general election to present more favorable death counts.

And now state whistleblower Rebekah Jones has repeatedly spoken out against the FDLE raid on her home, which occurred with her young children present, saying that it was done in retaliation. Jones has claimed she was fired from the health department for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data so be more favorable to the state.

The raid put FDLE and DeSantis on the defensive as Jones claimed agents pointed guns at her family. FDLE was issuing a warrant to Jones to justify seizing her computers, smartphones and other electronics as part of a computer-hacking investigation. The judge who had signed the warrant had just been appointed by DeSantis.

Nevertheless, the raid made Jones a national cause célèbre.

Then DeSantis ended up stepping on his feel-good message of the first shipments of vaccines coming to Florida.

DeSantis claimed Pfizer had production issues and the drug store chains were too slow to get seniors in nursing homes inoculated. Pfizer denied the claim and Walgreens and CVS said they were following guidelines set down by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Crowley, the political analyst, said the Republican governor has cast his lot with Trump supporters for re-election in 2022. But he noted that many elections are won in Florida by 1 percentage point where moderates and independents carry the victor.

“One of the things that strikes me is that Governor DeSantis has a very petulant personality. It is very difficult for him to admit a mistake,” Crowley said.

“As we watched the numbers of cases go up in Florida significantly – and that suggests the potential number of deaths will also go up significantly – Ron DeSantis is very reluctant to change course. And in that way, he is very much like Donald Trump.”

Coronavirus update

County: 76,143 cases, 1,843 deaths

State: 1,193,165 cases, 20,764 deaths

US: 17,589,590 cases, 315,174 deaths

World: 76,079,322 cases, 1,681,885 deaths

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