A courtroom settlement over withheld COVID-19 data has dealt a severe blow to Ron DeSantis’s campaign image as a courageous freedom warrior who bravely kept Florida open during the deadliest days of the pandemic.
DeSantis at a Crossroads
It’s a critical juncture for the Florida governor, whose bid for the Republican presidential nomination has been grappling with financial woes and plummeting poll numbers in early primary states.
To regain the support of hardline Republicans, DeSantis has positioned himself as a champion of “medical freedom” and openly defied federal health guidance by discouraging Floridians from receiving new COVID-19 booster shots.
This settlement concludes a two-year legal battle initiated in June 2021, when the Florida health department abruptly ceased daily updates of COVID cases, deaths, and vaccinations on its online dashboard.
A Coalition of Opponents
The legal standoff involved a coalition of Democrats, open government advocates, and media outlets.
Under the terms of the settlement, the department will cover the plaintiffs’ $152,000 legal expenses and resume regular data updates.
DeSantis’s team had declared these unnecessary, claiming that Florida was swiftly returning to normalcy.
In stark contrast to the team’s assertions, Florida was in the grip of the Delta variant, with daily cases and fatalities hitting a record 385 in September 2021.
At the same time, the state led the nation in pediatric Covid hospitalizations.
The “Pied Piper of Covid”
Critics called DeSantis “the Pied Piper of Covid,” accusing him of leading the state off a cliff as he imposed an executive order banning mask mandates in schools and secured veto power over local coronavirus mandates.
“Twenty-three thousand Floridians died during the Delta surge, and not only did the DeSantis administration restrict information on Covid during that time, they repeatedly downplayed the severity of the outbreak to fit their political narrative and help DeSantis run for president. That decision cost lives,” stated Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democratic former state congressman who initiated the lawsuit.
The pivotal moment came when an appeals court ordered the health department to produce documents containing Covid data it previously claimed didn’t exist, prompting Smith to deem the settlement inevitable.
Florida Health Department’s Response
In response, the Florida Department of Health stressed that the settlement doesn’t imply wrongdoing or any law violations, adding they consistently reported data to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They criticized the debate over data formatting as a waste of government resources.
Health analysts welcomed the resumption of Covid data publication but expressed regret over the politicization of both the process and the virus.
Jay Wolfson, a distinguished professor of public health, medicine, and pharmacy at the University of South Florida, argued that there was no valid excuse for withholding information from the public, noting that it only fueled public confusion, especially when state recommendations conflicted with federal guidelines.
DeSantis Struggles on Key Issues
For DeSantis, this episode represents another setback in his quest for the presidential nomination.
Smith, a prominent critic of the governor, believes that DeSantis has been struggling to connect with voters who are more concerned about other pressing issues like property insurance, rising costs, access to healthcare, and housing.
DeSantis’s shifting campaign strategy, from culture wars to Covid, has yet to resonate with voters, leaving his once-promising campaign teetering on the edge.
In the face of this courtroom settlement, the narrative surrounding DeSantis’s leadership during the pandemic continues to change, and its impact on his political aspirations remains uncertain.
Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Hunter Crenian