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DeSantis defies critics as coronavirus spreads in Florida

Notably for public health advocates, DeSantis didn’t wear a face mask before, during or after his news conference Friday. He didn’t stress the need for social distancing and personal protective equipment. He mentioned the negative effects of lockdowns by pointing to their “profound” socio-economic effects, as well as the health consequences for children who don’t get needed vaccines.

DeSantis is “shooting himself in the foot,” said Dr. Aileen Marty, a Florida International University pandemic expert who is advising the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez.

DeSantis is “so eager to open up the economy because we’re in a recession now. It is a horrible situation. But he thinks in downplaying the threat of the virus that’s going to help the economy,” she said. “It’s going to backfire because if people fail to understand how dangerous this particular virus is, they’re going to act in irresponsible ways.”

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That, in turn, could increase infection and lead to devastating effects on public health as well as the economy, she said.

As a researcher who has studied viruses from Asia to Africa, Marty said the GOP convention could be a “wonderful way to spread infection.” And, she said, the same will probably be true of the protests that have gripped the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a white Minneapolis police officer.

“The virus doesn’t care what we’re doing when we gather together, whether we’re protesting or having a convention or a party,” she said.

DeSantis is paying close attention to the protests, referring to them to implicitly justify the convention coming to Florida.

“I would remind people that we just were through an era, a two-week period, where you had tens of thousands of people gathering in very close proximity in Hollywood, California, New York all these places,” DeSantis said, noting health officials are monitoring Florida cities that saw large demonstrations. “There is not yet evidence that I’m aware of that that has sparked any type of significant outbreaks.”

By pointing to the demonstrations, DeSantis spoke to a deep frustration among conservatives who see a double standard in media coverage — they note that discussion of the prospect of coronavirus infection was relatively muted in the national TV news coverage of protesters, many of whom are associated with the political left. But now that the convention is being moved to Jacksonville, the focus is once again on the risks of mass gatherings.

“In Duval County, where they’re gonna have the Republican National Convention — Memorial Day weekend to the present — Covid hospitalizations are down, 50 percent,” DeSantis said. “They’ve had a relatively minor outbreak compared to other parts of the country. But I know they’re all working on that.”

Later that day, exactly one week after DeSantis paved the way for them to partially reopen, the first of three bars in Jacksonville Beach started to close back down due to a coronavirus scare.

DeSantis said the RNC and Jacksonville, run by former Florida GOP chair Mayor Lenny Curry, are working on plans to make the convention safe. He said older people and others in an “at-risk demographic” should take extra precautions.

Unlike at the beginning stages of the pandemic in March and April, DeSantis said, the state now has more and better testing available, which has naturally increased the number of positives. The increase in the positivity rate indicates that infection is spreading, but DeSantis pointed out that more young and asymptomatic people — who are at low risk of being hospitalized or dying — are now being infected. He also attributed some of the spike in positivity rates to “outbreaks” among farmworkers, nursing-home employees and in state prisons.

But the University of Florida’s Mark Settles, a professor of horticulture who has been tracking the state’s data on his Facebook page, pushed back on DeSantis’ rosy take.

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