TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped at a seaside seafood joint in St. Petersburg Monday to sign high-profile pandemic legislation, but the event came with a much larger political subtext: 2022.
DeSantis held the splashy bill signing ceremony in the district of Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Florida Republican governor likely announcing a bid for his old job Tuesday in the same city. Yet on Monday, there stood DeSantis with GOP legislative leaders, where he signed a bill loosening many of Florida’s remaining Covid restrictions, lauded his administration’s response to the pandemic and trashed Democrat-led states like California and New York, which DeSantis has continually hammered publicly.
“I don’t think anyone at the time would have thought a pandemic would allow governors to seize power to lock kids out of schools, for a year, to lock businesses down,” said DeSantis, who did lock down the state, but lifted most of the mandates in September. “We worked very hard, particularly since summer, to jettison those types of policies.”
For DeSantis and his Democratic challengers, the pandemic will be the top issue heading into the gubernatorial race. DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic has been among the most controversial in the country. He never instituted a state mask mandate and used his executive authority to block local governments from fining residents who violated local government’s emergency Covid orders.
After September, DeSantis quickly re-opened most of the state, a move that boosted DeSantis’ standing with national Republicans who saw Florida’s pandemic response as a model for conservatives. It also intensified Democrats’ loathing, who see DeSantis as responsible for unneeded deaths and additional cases.
Those are the contours likely to frame the early messaging fight in the 2022 gubernatorial race, which is also likely to feature Orlando Rep. Val Demings and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Democrat’s only statewide elected official.
The legislation DeSantis was heralding on Monday, (SB 2006), gives the Florida governor broader authority to invalidate orders local governments issue such as mask mandates. It also bans so-called “vaccine passports,” which conservatives have used to attack the Biden administration and fuels the unfounded fear that big government is trying to track its citizens. The governor also used the event to signal he may start more aggressively encouraging state residents to get vaccinated, a metric where Florida is in the middle of the pack nationally.
Crist quickly reacted on Twitter with his brand of happy warrior politics, posting Monday that DeSantis was “welcome anytime” on his home turf, but his congressional office released a statement after the event with a decidedly more critical tone, hammering DeSantis for invalidating decisions made by local governments.
“Governor DeSantis failed to lead during the pandemic, leaving local officials as the last line of defense against the pandemic, forcing them to make the hard decisions to save lives. This is a continuation of that immoral lack of leadership, and another reason why he doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.”
Fried also tweeted a response to DeSantis on Monday, saying “the ‘evidence-based thing to do’ is to follow the science. We should be empowering local leaders & companies to protect their communities and get their economies back on track.”
DeSantis’ push to curb local governments’ executive orders puts him in a tough messaging position. Just last week, DeSantis extended his own coronavirus-related emergency executive authority even as he continues to say Florida is no longer in a state of emergency. The governor also re-opened the state quicker than many others, but did lock down much of the state’s economy in the early stages of the pandemic, which can complicate messaging that he hopes focuses on his hands-off response.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who attended the bill signing, previewed a likely Republican defense to criticism that DeSantis’ early actions contradict how he now frames Florida’s coronavirus situation.
“Gov. Ron DeSantis sole mission was to do what is safe for a brief period of time to get our businesses back open, and to get our schools back open,” he said.
Sprowls also tried to defuse criticism that the newly-signed pandemic legislation giving Florida governors more authority to invalidate local emergency orders is simply a power grab, saying future governors will also benefit from it.
“Governor DeSantis comes and doesn’t say ‘give me more power’ during the pandemic, but ‘what if I was not the governor?’” Sprowls said.
DeSantis noted the newly-signed bill checks his power by allowing the Legislature to pass a resolution that would invalidate a gubernatorial-signed executive order. Unlike legislation, the resolution does not require the governor’s signature.
But the GOP-dominated Legislature declined to take any concrete steps to rein in DeSantis throughout the pandemic. DeSantis did use the event to make his strongest statement yet encouraging Floridians to get the Covid-19 vaccine, and said his administration would start running pro-vaccine PSAs. DeSantis has gotten the vaccination, but did not do so publicly, which led to a round of criticism that the move to do so behind closed doors was a nod to anti-vaxxers within the GOP base.
Roughly 37 percent of Florida’s adults have been vaccinated. Of Florida seniors, DeSantis’ early focus, just under 70 percent have been vaccinated.
“My message is the vaccine protects you, get the vaccine, then live life like you’re protected,” DeSantis said.