No mask required in classrooms. No vaccination “passports”. And no more business closures.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of COVID-19 has bolstered his nationwide cachet among fellow Republicans as he seeks re-election to governor’s mansion next year and considers a presidential bid in 2024 .

But the governor’s insistence on staying the course amid a growing number of infections – as of Monday, Florida had the nation’s highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate – is firing as Democrats point the finger at the Republican holder.

The attitudes and actions of elected officials regarding masks and vaccinations have become a flashpoint in the increasingly tribal nature of partisan politics. The ideological schism over preventive protocols in Florida helped DeSantis become a national presidential candidate and, at the same time, became the cornerstone of Democrats’ efforts to oust him.

“I think it’s crass politicization, and I think it’s shameful, and I think it’s based on a guy who has his eyes on the ’24 Republican nomination instead of the governor. and the people of Florida in ’22. Obviously that’s it, ”Congressman Charlie Crist, a Democrat from St. Petersburg who is running to try to topple DeSantis next year, told the News Service of Florida in an appearance in Tallahassee. . Crist was governor as a Republican before becoming a Democrat and losing a candidacy for governor in 2014.

DeSantis, however, isn’t backing down from its largely laissez-faire approach, even as the highly transmissible delta variant of the novel coronavirus is tearing the Sunshine State apart.

“We are not closing,” DeSantis told reporters on Tuesday. “We are going to open schools. We protect the work of every Floridian in this state. We protect small businesses from people. These interventions have failed repeatedly throughout this pandemic, not only in the United States but abroad. They haven’t stopped the spread, especially with the delta.

With DeSantis focused on an economic rebound, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running against Crist for the Democratic nomination for governor next year, has taken on the role of COVID-19 chief information officer of the state. She has held press conferences to discuss data on infection rates and hospitalizations in Florida and used social media to explode DeSantis’ approach to the pandemic, such as her issuing an executive order to prevent school districts to require students to wear masks.

“We stand in solidarity with our local school boards who have the constitutional power to protect our children and will not be intimidated or funded by our authoritarian aspiring governor,” Fried tweeted Wednesday.

DeSantis made headlines last week when he released the executive order, which came after mocking the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations during an appearance at the American Conservative’s annual meeting. Legislative Exchange Council.

“We say no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no warrants,” DeSantis said at the Salt Lake City event, adding that people “should not be condemned to live … in a faucian dystopia “.

DeSantis made Anthony Fauci, a highly respected infectious disease expert who served on the White House’s COVID-19 advisory team, a frequent object of contempt. The governor’s political committee, for example, capitalizes on Republicans’ animosity towards the public health veteran through the sale of merchandise emblazoned with messages such as “Don’t Fauci My Florida.”

DeSantis’ anger isn’t limited to the 80-year-old doctor, however. The governor has taken an equally combative stance with the CDC — he sued the federal agency for refusing to lift cruise restrictions — and President Joe Biden’s administration.

But with Florida and Texas responsible for a third of COVID-19 cases in the United States last week, the White House is fighting back. Biden on Tuesday accused DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott of “poor health policy” amid peaks in both states.

“I’m saying to these governors, please help yourself,” Biden said. “If you’re not going to help, at least avoid the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.

Critics accuse DeSantis of bowing to grassroots GOP voters – who show up in large numbers for the primaries – on issues such as face masks and his reliance on scientists and data seen as outliers in the medical community.

But skepticism about masks and vaccines isn’t limited to Republicans, GOP political consultant Anthony Pedicini said in a phone interview with the News Service.

“By nature, Americans don’t want the government to tell them to do anything,” Pedicini said. “Honestly, the very essence of who we are as Americans is evident in this mask debate.”

The sentiment about health care precautions “is not part of a party,” Pedicini added.

“It rips apart the core of who we are as Americans. We love freedom. The government should never tell us what to do.

The governor of Florida isn’t telling anyone he can’t wear masks. So if you feel uncomfortable or feel like it is putting your life in danger, put the mask on, put the mask on your kids and go about your day, ”said Pedicini, who had COVID- 19 in November, received vaccination this year and urges others to get vaccinated.

DeSantis has advocated for the use of vaccines but, unlike some other GOP governors in states experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, has not pushed Floridians to get vaccinated. About half of eligible Floridians are not fully immunized.

“Should the Governor of the State of Florida be an activist? Yes. And I think he is, in the sense that he takes the side of freedom, ”said Pedicini. “I think it served him quite well politically.”

With the most recent polls showing DeSantis the frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, the Republican leader “feels strongly that he is going to win his re-election” and “looks to the next game, which is clearly the presidential game,” political consultant Steve Vancore, who advises Democrats, said in an interview.

“You have to be the most conservative, pro-Trump Republican in the business, and as such he seems to stick with a custom scenario for his far-right base. There is no part of Ron DeSantis playing in the middle. He plays basic every step of the way, ”said Vancore.

COVID-19 health care protocols are “being used as a political pawn because our governor and others have discovered it is a political tool, as Floridians die or fall ill and people across the country are, “US Representative Val Demings, a Democrat who is trying to topple Republican US Senator Marco Rubio, said in an interview.

“Why can’t we just listen, our governor and others, to be guided by science, to be guided by information from medical experts, to follow their directions? ” she said. “I really wish this issue wasn’t politicized, but it has been from the very beginning.”

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion