‘The Pied Piper leading us off a cliff’: Florida governor condemned as Covid surges | Florida

Florida governor Ron DeSantis earned a new moniker this week as the resurgent coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on his state: the “Pied Piper of Covid-19, leading everybody off a cliff”.

Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, coined the term as Florida continued to set records for new cases and hospitalizations, recorded worrying increases in both deaths and rates of positivity, and led the nation in pediatric Covid admissions.

With the highly contagious Delta variant spreading, a state comprising little more than 6% of the US population was accounting for one in five of the country’s new cases, recording 50,997 in the three days to Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

DeSantissays the spike is “seasonal” and opposes lockdowns or new restrictions. The Republican governor followed up his executive order banning mask mandates in schools by dismissed the burgeoning crisis in Florida’s hospitals as “media hysteria”.

“You try to fearmonger, you try to do this stuff,” DeSantis snapped at a reporter who asked him at a press conference in Miami on Tuesday about the state’s new high for Covid hospitalizations – a total of 11,863.

“Our hospitals are open for business. We’re not shutting down. We’re gonna have schools open. We’re protecting every Floridian’s job in this state, we are protecting people’s small businesses. These interventions have failed time and time again throughout this pandemic,” he said, referring to mask mandates.

The governor’s single minded desire to keep the state open despite the Delta variant-fuelled spike has drawn criticism from local political leaders to the White House, where Joe Biden said on Tuesday: “I say to these governors, ‘Please help’. But if you are not going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing.”

DeSantis, a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2024 if Trump doesn’t run, and a possible running mate if he does, shares the former president’s prioritizing of the economy.

But Gelber said he thought DeSantis’s stance could backfire and end up hurting businesses.

“I’m the mayor of a hospitality town. I think most people coming here would rather be in a place that they feel safer than a place that they feel like they may be getting the virus,” he told CNN.

“He’s like the Pied Piper, just leading everybody off a cliff right now, letting them know that they don’t have to like the CDC, they don’t have to wear masks, they can do whatever they want in the midst of an enormous pandemic – and Florida, by wide margins, is easily the worst state in the country.”

The mayor said he felt “hamstrung” by legislation signed by DeSantis in May that gave him veto power over coronavirus mandates by municipalities.

“We’re not allowed a mask edict now. We were one of the first cities to require it and the governor stopped allowing us to do it, then immediately we saw a surge across our county and state.”

Charlie Crist, a former Florida governor and Democrat seeking to unseat DeSantis next year, said his rival’s betrays “a blatant disregard for the health and wellbeing of children and teachers”.

On Tuesday, officials in Broward county, the nation’s sixth-largest school district, which last week voted to enforce mask-wearing, said they would back down, although appeared to be reconsidering their position a day later.

“With his latest stunt the Governor ignores science and the facts – that masks work,” Crist said in a statement to the Guardian.

“For the past year, masks kept Florida’s schools from becoming major contributors to the virus’s spread. They enabled our kids to be in the classroom safely. Now, with only a week until school starts back, Florida tragically leads the nation in children hospitalized due to the virus.

“He wants to defund the school systems trying to keep them safe. It’s unconscionable.”

In an emailed response to the Guardian, DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, countered Gelber and Crist’s assertions that mask mandates were effective. In Texas, she said, cases declined following the lifting of a mandate in March, while in California numbers surged at the start of the year with a mandate in place.

“The governor and Florida department of health have always encouraged Floridians to protect themselves and their communities. The best way to do that is to get vaccinated,” she said.

Dr Jay Wolfson, professor of public health medicine at the University of South Florida, does not expect DeSantis to change course.

“The one driving force that most affects the governor’s decisions in the state’s policies is deaths. As long as deaths remain stable or under control, the rates of hospitalization and infectiousness are likely not going to elicit mandating masks or vaccines or doing anything else that would jeopardize the economic policies,” he said.

“Balancing public health policy interests against economic policy interests can be a delicate game and there are compelling interests on both sides.

“These judgment calls are not always based exclusively on educational or health issues, they’re based on political, pragmatic realities, and thus far the governor has been successful in demonstrating he has a significant amount of political support for the positions that he’s taking.”