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What's Driving Governor Ron DeSantis' Decisions on COVID-19 Measures

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We begin this segment in Florida, where a day after day, new COVID cases and hospitalizations keep climbing. It's where the governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, has largely rejected many of the public health measures aimed at slowing down the spread of the virus. The latest one? Mask mandates in schools. Three school districts have opposed his decision so far, but the governor is standing his ground. Here to tell us more about Governor DeSantis' approach to the pandemic is Steve Contorno, political editor of the Tampa Bay Times.

Welcome.

STEVE CONTORNO: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: We should note that DeSantis does support vaccines, but can you just begin by explaining, what has he said about why he doesn't want any masks or vaccine mandates?

CONTORNO: For DeSantis, it really comes down to one thing, and that's freedom and liberty. And those are the tenets that he has governed by essentially since he reopening the state. And it is his point of view that Florida should not be restricting the movements of people or businesses or schools. And that has been his posture for months. And he has not backed down, even as we have seen this, you know, swift rise in cases here in Florida.

CHANG: Right. But on top of that, he hasn't reimposed a public health emergency either or really any other public health measures as COVID numbers keep worsening in Florida. Who are the people in Florida who do agree with DeSantis' approach and why?

CONTORNO: Well, we're seeing a lot of them show up at the school board meetings where these mask mandates are being debated. And, you know, they say that they don't want their kids to be - have their mouth and breathing restricted during the day. They think it should be a choice, family to family decision, and it shouldn't be put in the hands of school administrators and school boards. And that is something that we've seen echoed in a lot of these debates. There has consistently been a loud chorus of people who say that decisions about how people should be responding to the pandemic should be left in the hands of those individuals and not the government.

CHANG: But at the same time, there's also a chorus of people who have been criticizing DeSantis' approach, right? I'm just curious, how is that playing out for him in Florida right now?

CONTORNO: So far, he is digging in his heels. And we have not seen any sort of evidence that he intends to waver. Every step he has taken since last year has been toward making Florida more open and prohibiting any sort of mandates on masks, on social distancing, on capacity and more recently on vaccines.

CHANG: OK, so he has been unwavering. That said, he's up for reelection next year. It's possible that he will run for president in 2024. How do you think his leadership during this pandemic might play into his future political ambitions?

CONTORNO: It has certainly supercharged his base. And the people who, you know, were very strong supporters of President Trump and people who are in the pro-business side of the state have become very enthusiastic endorsers of Ron DeSantis for 2022 and beyond. But it has also mobilized the other side, who, you know, early in DeSantis' term, he actually opposed quite a few people with some of the positions he was taking on the environment, on education, on other aspects of Florida.

That has completely changed since the pandemic. And now, in recent weeks, as we've seen these cases tick up, the opposition side and the people who want to see DeSantis be a one-term governor have gotten a lot louder, a lot more organized. And I think they are going to have a stronger fundraising pitch nationally that will help them be a counterbalance to DeSantis in this 2022 election.

CHANG: That is Steve Contorno, political editor of the Tampa Bay Times.

Thank you very much.

CONTORNO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.