TALLAHASSEE — He whiffed on a question about the death of civil rights icon John Lewis. Hecklers disrupted him. And he awkwardly distanced himself from his own administration’s back-to-school order.
Faced with a bad and worsening outbreak, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has lost his coronavirus swagger.
Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis has traveled the state holding televised press briefings to highlight numbers that put his administration’s response in a favorable light. The events have been marked by a confident DeSantis focusing on the positives and lashing out at those who bring up the negatives.
But as Florida has turned into a global coronavirus hotspot, the near-daily briefings have turned the Republican governor, one of President Donald Trump’s biggest allies, into a national punchline. Unlike New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who successfully used his coronavirus spotlight to elevate his profile and dispatch with critics, DeSantis keeps finding new ways to embarrass himself.
The gaffes and worsening news have fed a national perception that Florida is consumed in chaos and leaderless as the virus rips unchecked through a must-win state for Trump less than four months from Election Day.
On Monday, a day in which Florida again registered more than 10,000 new Covid-19 cases, DeSantis was interrupted by protesters who crashed the press briefing in Orlando. They screamed “shame on you” as police escorted them out, according to video of the event.
DeSantis, speaking over the disruption, said the state would not “defund the police.” Police budgets have become a rallying cry for protests across the country in recent months, but they weren’t the focus of the hecklers on Monday.
“And we will not be defunding the police, don’t worry about that,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to be supporting our men and women in law enforcement.”
Protesters could be heard banging on windows as the press conference continued, forcing DeSantis and officials at OneBlood, a blood donation center where the event was held, to speak over the noise. The purpose of the briefing was to stress the importance of plasma donation as need rises amid the pandemic.
“I hope none of them need convalescent plasma,” said Bud Scholl, the company’s CEO, as he talked over the bangs and continued shouts of protesters.
Like other recent coronavirus briefings, the theme of the day was drowned out by the day’s events, which repeatedly have sidelined the governor’s attempted pandemic narrative and painted him as losing his grip on the situation.
That perception is starting to concern some Republicans.
“It’s not that he does not care, it’s that he seems to have a hard time showing people that he does. He truly cares about policy, the data, and donning what he believes is right for Floridians, but that doesn’t always get conveyed,” said one Republican legislator. “He’s constantly focused on the substance and execution, but some of these self-inflicted wounds distract away from that reality.”
The GOP lawmaker said he supports DeSantis, but is concerned the daily chaos is hurting the response.
“Given a choice between the steak and the sizzle, I’ll pick steak every day of the week and twice on Sunday,” the person added.
It was the second time in a week DeSantis has faced hecklers. In Miami last week, Thomas Kennedy, an immigrant rights advocate and persistent DeSantis critic, drew national headlines when he yelled “shame on you” as DeSantis started his coronavirus briefing.
“You are an embarrassment,” Kennedy shouted. “We are getting record-breaking cases every day and you are doing nothing.”
Florida has reported more than 10,000 new cases in 10 of the past 11 days, including 10,058 on Monday, a day on which there was an additional 90 deaths. The state’s positivity rate has not been under 10 percent for nearly a month.
DeSantis also drew criticism after a coronavirus briefing in St. Augustine on Saturday, where he was asked by Vice News about that city’s decision to move a Confederate monument.
The question referenced Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who died Saturday. Lewis was lauded by elected officials of both political parties after his passing, but DeSantis punted on his chance to say anything about Lewis’ death or the removal of Confederate monuments, which has become a growing topic of debate in Florida in recent weeks.
“I appreciate the question, but we are trying to focus on the coronavirus,” DeSantis said with a noticeable nervous twitch, before calling on another reporter.
The pass won DeSantis a round of national headlines, again for the wrong reasons: He had failed the politically easy task of praising a civil rights icon from a neighboring state.
On Monday in Orlando, DeSantis had another head-scratching moment when he distanced himself from his own administration’s order that schools open classrooms starting next month.
The order was issued July 6 by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who was appointed by and answers to DeSantis, as Trump ramped up his public push to get students back into classrooms by the August start of the school year.
The push to get kids back into classrooms as the pandemic worsens has drawn scrutiny. On Monday, the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, sued to block the Corcoran order.
DeSantis seemed to imply that the order was done without his approval.
“I didn’t issue an executive order, that was the Department of Education,” DeSantis said in response to a question Monday. “You know, they have a board and they do, they do different things.”
“What the governor did was allow us to execute an emergency order that said, ‘here are all the options we want available to parents,’” Corcoran said during a virtual town hall meeting.
Neither the governor’s office nor the Department of Education responded to requests seeking clarification.