From the start, Florida was uniquely susceptible to a Covid-19 outbreak. One in five Floridians is older than 65, an age group that is at great risk for contracting severe Covid-19. More than 40 percent of the state’s residents are Black or Latino, groups that have experienced disproportionately high rates of infection. But Gov. Ron DeSantis adopted a hands-off approach that critics have said aligns with a “herd immunity” strategy that would allow the virus to run through communities unchecked.
In April, DeSantis issued a sweeping stay-at-home order that ended just a month later, leading to Florida reopening far sooner than other states. At the time, less than 2 percent of the state’s population had been tested for the virus, and testing was still unavailable in many workplaces and rural communities. The governor had created a reopening task force in April, but the group only met twice and did not even create written recommendations. When he began reopening in May, he announced that Florida would follow White House guidelines.
By June, the state was reporting record-high numbers of cases, with thousands of new cases every day. Although he acknowledged the disease was spreading through Florida communities, DeSantis told reporters, “We’re not rolling back.” He refused to instate a mask mandate, and when Florida’s surgeon general finally recommended that residents wear masks on June 202, the recommendation came with no enforcement strategy and no penalties. In July, the state broke the nationwide record for most reported cases in a single day.
Without an organized state response, cases continued to rise over the continuing months. In November, as Florida approached 1 million Covid-19 cases and other states opted to impose mask mandates or stay-at-home orders, DeSantis again chose not to implement any statewide restrictions. He said the state would never again implement lockdowns, and allowed bars, restaurants, and theaters to remain open and operate at full capacity.
DeSantis’ inert approach also extended to Florida’s vaccine rollout, which was marked by confusion and contradictory policies. On one occasion, the governor spread misinformation when he urged elderly residents to register for vaccinations — even though health officials had not yet opened up vaccinations to this group. Once elderly residents became eligible, hundreds were turned away after they camped and waited for hours in an attempt to get the vaccine.
At the same time, wealthy people were able to jump ahead in line. In January, assisted living facility MorseLife Health System steered vaccines to wealthy donors and board members, and possibly even their personal connections. In Hernando County, health department officials offered vaccine doses to a wealthy gated community while ignoring calls from other residents. Wealthy South Americans vacationing in the state were also able to receive initial doses, as the state has no residency requirements.
Amid this crisis, DeSantis and his office repeatedly obstructed information sharing. For months, DeSantis refused to make the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s Florida reports public. When they were released by the Center for Public Integrity, the reports showed the task force had urged state leaders to increase mitigation efforts to slow the virus’ spread at the same time DeSantis was publicly saying there was no need for business restrictions. The state has also refused to disclose what factors are used to determine whether a death was from Covid-19 and hasn’t explained missing gaps in public Covid-19 data. In May 2020, a data scientist from the state’s health department was fired for what she said was her refusal to manipulate data; in December, her home was raided by armed police.
American Oversight is investigating Florida state officials’ handling of the pandemic, and has requested DeSantis’ calendars and communications. We have filed public records requests to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Health, and the Governor’s Office seeking communications related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, we’ve filed county-specific requests in Orlando, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade, seeking communications between state and county officials.