When schools, stadiums, and churches were locked and empty, hundreds of thousands of Americans poured into the streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, setting up an uncomfortable conflict between public health and social justice during the early days of the pandemic in America.
More than a thousand experts and activists, including many from academia, weighed in. Yes, they wrote in an open letter that quickly went viral, social distancing remained an “effective” method to slow the spread, but “white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.”
These same voices added, however, that their support of Black Lives Matter demonstrations “should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.” Those kinds of protests, they insisted, were “rooted in white nationalism.”
This was the moment when DeSantis lost faith, if he had any left, in the experts, i.e., the ruling class of public health professionals who governed the U.S. response to COVID-19. What Florida’s Republican governor saw as an obvious double standard “told me all I needed to know about what partisans these people were.”
Those kinds of “experts,” DeSantis concluded, “were not going to save us” – a populist theme that defines his forthcoming memoir, “The Courage to Be Free,” set to be published Tuesday and segments of which were obtained early by RealClearPolitics.
DeSantis writes that Florida became “a citadel of freedom” during the pandemic by “cutting against the grain of elite and media opinion” and “bucking the experts,” including those who led the COVID task force in the Trump White House. As he explores his own bid for the presidency, a contest that would necessarily pit him against the former president, the book brings that implicit contrast into sharp relief.
Though he loves to loathe them now, Trump never told Anthony Fauci or any of the other lockdown architects he employed “You’re fired!” But DeSantis, without criticizing Trump specifically, writes how he “consumed data” and “measured it against policies implemented” in other states before deciding early on “that I would not blindly follow Fauci and other elite experts.”
That difference could be a deciding factor in the 2024 Republican primary season if the two men find themselves crossways on a debate stage. Trump has already been blasted on COVID from the left. A rebuke has not yet materialized on the right. And DeSantis does not offer an explicit one in “The Courage to Be Free” so much as he rails against the media, whom he excoriates for holding up “governors like Andrew Cuomo as heroes,” and while treating the pronouncements of self-confident experts as gospel.
For DeSantis, Fauci is an obvious foil. He recalls how the public face of the pandemic response advised states like Florida in July of 2020 that they “should seriously look at shutting down.” The reason, according to the now retired director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was that “we are seeing exponential growth.” Democrats in the Florida legislature echoed that warning and called for a state-wide mask mandate in a public letter that was read on loop on cable news.
DeSantis did not listen. This isn’t because of what his critics called “neanderthal thinking,” he says in his memoir. It’s because he was convinced that “Fauci and the House Democrats were not in tune with the data.” He recalls that emergency room visits had already peaked by the time of Fauci’s warning. What’s more, the numbers the federal COVID task force was relying on were out of date, at least in Florida, as documented infections could take as long as 10 days to be reported. Their prescription amounted to “a post-peak shutdown,” DeSantis writes, “which would have been totally counterproductive and hurt Floridians.”
And while other states sought to “shut down the virus,” Florida shifted strategy and adopted a more focused approach. He writes of that recent history that the goal was to preserve hospital capacity for the worst-case scenarios, “not to achieve zero COVID,” a lofty aspiration that he says – and medical professionals now concede – “was impossible.” In this way, the governor writes that Florida looked more like “lockdown-free Sweden.”
Some readers may not have the appetite for retrospective debates about epidemiology, but conservative voters are still frosted about what they see as unfair treatment. DeSantis delivers a heavy dose of media criticism, criticizing “legacy media outlets” for politicizing a once-in-a-century global pandemic and using “it as a cudgel against their political opponents.”
DeSantis writes with a sense of vindication, especially when comparing and contrasting his state with others. The subtext that may become increasingly apparent if he seeks the presidency: During the pandemic there was another way, a better way, than the trail blazed by Fauci and the feds – and Democrats all over the country.
The governor writes that while New York under former Cuomo and California under his nemesis Gov. Gavin Newsom locked down for longer, Florida did the opposite – with better results. Between April of 2020 and July of 2022 in Florida, DeSantis writes, excess mortality, the rubric for measuring the increase in deaths in contrast to a pre-pandemic baseline, “rose by 15.6% – a smaller increase than in lockdown-happy states that typically received media praise.” New York and California fared worse with excess mortality rates of 20% and 17.7% respectively, and even then, without the additional inherent challenge that Florida faced, namely “one of the most elderly and vulnerable populations.”
Opponents heaped criticism on DeSantis at the time for refusing to permanently lock down; one liberal activist drew national headlines for dressing up like the Grim Reaper and patrolling Florida beaches in protest. Voters rewarded DeSantis with a rout at the polls; he won reelection last year by double digits, voters said, because he kept the state open and returned kids to school earlier than other states.
One main reason, according to DeSantis? He listened to the other doctors, the epidemiologists and medical experts who had credentials as good or better than those directing the White House COVID task force, though they never graced the covers of magazines or had artisanal cocktails named in their honor while deaths of despair skyrocketed around the country. The Florida approach, DeSantis writes, was in line with what the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration later recommended.
As those scientists pointed out, the risk of mortality during COVID was highest among the elderly, and their declaration on the economic and social harms caused by the lockdowns was published in October of 2020. Their opinions were well known though not widely adopted outside of some states like Florida, something DeSantis considers malpractice. “This fact should have played a major role in shaping the proper COVID-19 response,” DeSantis writes, “but most public health experts rejected a strategy focusing on minimizing risks to the elderly while avoiding the harms associated with shutting down society and imposing restrictions on low-risk people.”
As frequently as he questions the experts who were in vogue during the pandemic, DeSantis highlights a trust in the individual to “make the best decisions for themselves and their families.” His job, as he recalls, was to find “evidence-based” approaches “that recognized the obvious harms of mitigation efforts, and that best maintained the normal social functioning of our communities.”
Face coverings are one prominent example. If masks were as effective as advertised, he writes, “then people would choose to wear them without government coercion.” Shutdown orders are another. “Just as I refused to impose a shutdown,” he adds, “I rejected imposing a mask mandate.” Trump has since challenged him on that timeline.
The former president is running a third time for the White House and now argues that the governor is “trying to rewrite history.” Trump told reporters last month that there were “Republican governors that did not close their states” before adding that “Florida was closed for a long period of time.”
DeSantis does not take that Trump criticism head on. He does address it, though. “Because the media and liberal politicians vehemently criticized Florida for being open, people sometimes forget that, early in the pandemic, Florida did four weeks of so-called essential business,” he writes. This, he notes, was in accordance with “the template provided by the federal government.”
The Florida definition of essential business was purposefully left so broad “that it included everything from construction to WWE wrestling.” He did issue a brief stay-at-home order in April of 2020, making Florida one of the last densely populated states to do so. Critics slammed him for waiting.
Controversies over lockdowns and mask requirements have since given way to arguments over the vaccine as the pandemic turns endemic. The debate over “the jab” could be potent in what some have already called “the vaccine election.” The DeSantis argument is simple: He got the shots quickly for those who wanted them. He never forced anyone to get vaccinated.
“While I rejected mandates to require any Floridian to take the vaccine, at the time my hope was that the shots would produce sterilizing immunity such that those who took it would not get coronavirus,” DeSantis said, explaining his thinking. “This, of course, did not happen.”
According to the governor, the mRNA vaccines subsequently became “a flashpoint” in what he describes as “the battle against the biomedical security state.”
The “lockdowners,” he says, switched to demanding vaccine requirements “even as evidence piled up that the shots were not living up to expectations” and in a deliberate effort “to marginalize those who declined the shot.”
The simple through-line of the DeSantis book: He rejected mandates when others did not. He leaves readers to make their own comparisons, perhaps until he decides to run for president himself.
“By the end of the summer of 2020, I could tell that more and more Floridians were thankful that I had been willing to take the fire to keep the state open and keep our citizens free,” he writes. “After reviewing the data, I made the judgment that draconian measures would do major damage to the economy and society while making little to no impact on the trajectory of the disease.”
In this way, DeSantis explains, Florida became “the citadel of freedom in the United States.”