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Ron DeSantis’s Coronavirus Response Is Killing Us

We hear it all the time, elections have consequences. Across the country, systemic inequities in the American capitalist system have proved fatal. The coronavirus outbreak has wreaked disproportionate havoc in America’s historically marginalized communities—communities of color—and from what we can glean from the limited available data, the situation in these communities is horrifying.

According to data obtained by Politico, in Michigan, where black Americans account for just 14 percent of the population, they represent 41 percent of coronavirus fatalities. In Louisiana, where black Americans make up around one-third of the population, they account for a gut-wrenching 70 percent of fatalities. And in Milwaukee County, WI, where black Americans make up just 26 percent of the population, they represent an overwhelming 73 percent of coronavirus deaths—an unconscionable disparity.

Here in Florida, we know for certain the virus is having a disproportionate impact in several counties, but the larger picture eludes us as Florida has failed to record the racial and ethnic demographic data required to understand the full scope of the catastrophe.

What we do know is this: more than 22,000 Floridians have tested positive for the virus, over 600 have died, and the peak is at least another month away. We know that these numbers do not reflect the reality in our state, because the Florida Department of Health has dramatically under-reported the backlog of tests. And we know that here in Florida, the effect of this disaster can be traced back to one man: Governor Ron DeSantis. 

DeSantis made national news recently after finally, reluctantly announcing a stay-at-home order for the entire state of Florida. His delayed response followed calls from numerous Florida legislators and, in typical DeSantis fashion, was inadequate, ill-conceived, poorly executed, and cowardly.

To begin with, the governor only announced the stay-at-home order on April 1 and inexplicably exempted religious organizations, golf courses, and gun and ammo shops from the restrictions. We’ve known since 2018 that DeSantis’ loyalties lie with President Trump, not with Floridians, and the fact that he issued the order after a conversation with Trump—who made the call with an eye towards his election prospects in November—comes as no surprise.

Shortly after DeSantis announced the first order, he quietly signed a second order that stated his directions “supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.” He was later forced to “clarify” this language amid the ensuing confusion.

As if to compound the problems with his stay-at-home order, DeSantis recently added the WWE to the list of “essential” businesses—a decision that struck many as cartoonish and inexplicable. But the decision begins to make sense when you learn that Linda McMahon—wife of WWE President Vince McMahon—chairs a pro-Trump SuperPAC that, on the very day DeSantis listed the WWE as “essential”, committed to an $18.5 million campaign to support Trump in the Orlando and Tampa media markets—an act of corruption so arrogant and barefaced it insults the intelligence of all Floridians.   

It’s clear already that the governor’s response was too little, too late, and created even more confusion among communities still grappling with this unprecedented crisis. New Florida Majority and other community organizations called on the government to take protective measures weeks ago, when restrictions would have done the most good—we even filed suit against the state to expand vote by mail in the primary election. But our pleas went unheeded and now disaster is here.

As a result of the governor’s horrendous response to the pandemic, an unprecedented number of Floridians find themselves out of work and without a financial safety net or access to adequate medical care. While Congress has expanded unemployment benefits, Floridians who’ve applied for state relief have found themselves trying to navigate a deliberately unusable website that still doesn’t work, or calling a phone line with nobody on the other end. DeSantis himself even admitted he lacks basic information about unemployment in his state, which he needs to address the problem.  

This is because when Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL)—a notorious health-care fraud—was in charge of the state, he intentionally designed the unemployment system to fail. He did so to increase corporate profits, decrease unemployment benefits, and generate artificially low unemployment numbers that benefited him politically. Naturally, DeSantis knew this system was broken, but did nothing about it.  

By depriving Floridians of practical means to remotely apply for unemployment benefits, DeSantis has forced thousands of people to risk their lives by crowding in lines to get paper applications, leading to scenes across the state like this one in Hialeah earlier this month. 

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians are out of money awaiting federal relief that could take weeks or even months to distribute. Meanwhile, the governor plans to give $540 million to corporations by May 1 (International Worker’s Day), even as Floridians don’t know if they’ll get their unemployment checks by then. The governor needs to stop the bailout for the largest corporations, expand and increase benefits for the unemployed, guarantee health care for all Floridians—regardless of their immigration status—and cover rent and utility costs so those deferred bills don’t become an avalanche of evictions several months from now.

Unfortunately, DeSantis still doesn’t seem to understand the true gravity of his failures. Last week he floated the idea of reopening Florida public schools next month, after falsely claiming that coronavirus hasn’t killed anyone in America under the age of 25. The Trump administration has publicly acknowledged that reopening schools early would inflame the spread of the virus. The governor also recently gave some state beaches the go-ahead to open back up, despite the huge backlog of testing. DeSantis seems ready to reopen our state before he even figures out the extent of the disaster. This is catastrophically irresponsible.  

It is true, elections do have consequences—in Florida they’ve proved fatal. The delayed “stay-at-home” order, the surge in unemployment without a practical insurance system, the lack of access to adequate medical care, and the absurd suggestion that public schools should reopen next month all contribute to the same result: Coronavirus will spread farther and faster in Florida than it otherwise would have. People in Florida who would have otherwise lived, had the governor taken decisive action, will die. Just 16 months after he took office, Ron DeSantis is killing us. 

Andrea Mercado is the executive director of New Florida Majority.