The current seven-day rate of hospital admissions is about 5,300 per day, according to the CDC, and about 1,000 people in the U.S. are dying from Covid every day.
But it was a remarkably different picture this week, when Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez, was a prominent speaker at a rally organized by anti-vaccination activists on the State Capitol steps.
The jarring scene gave vaccine skeptics in Florida a big win and moved the state further away from the guidance of federal public health officials, reflecting how a highly politicized pandemic has only become more so as Republican-controlled states confront the Biden administration’s wide-ranging attempts to ease it.
Perhaps no state has been more aggressive than Florida, where Mr. DeSantis and his allies are betting that the anger over public health restrictions that drove Republicans to the polls this month in Virginia, New Jersey and other states will grow their political base and keep voters fervently engaged going into the 2022 midterms. Mr. DeSantis, who faces re-election next year, is also considered a leading 2024 Republican presidential contender.
The evolving strategy has turned traditional politics in Florida upside down, creating a tension between Republican state lawmakers and big business, one of their key constituencies, while leaving the small minority of Democratic legislators to defend local government efforts to control the virus.
Almost entirely along party lines, Republicans passed four bills on Wednesday to curtail mask and vaccine mandates, the culmination of a three-day special legislative session that Mr. DeSantis called so swiftly it caught even Republican leaders by surprise. The session was urgently needed to combat federal government overreach, Mr. DeSantis argued.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and allies are betting that the anger over public health restrictions that drove Republican turnout in other states will grow their political base.Credit…Calvin Knight/The Ledger, via Associated Press
“No nurse, no firefighter, no police officer, no trucker — no anybody — should lose their job because of these Covid jabs,” Mr. DeSantis, who has taken to dismissing the vaccinations as “jabs” or “injections,” said on Thursday before signing the bills. “Florida is leading. This is the strongest piece of legislation that’s been enacted anywhere in the country in this regard.”
The move against vaccination requirements has empowered groups whose fringe views on the vaccines were met with little pushback from Republican legislators, a striking departure from past Florida politics.
“The conscience of their caucus has been hijacked by extremes,” said Representative Ramon Alexander, a Tallahassee Democrat. “It’s a danger to democracy.”
Mr. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers insisted that they support Covid-19 vaccines — and in many cases noted that they have taken them.
“No one is arguing that the vaccine doesn’t work,” Senator Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, said on the Senate floor. “Thank God that we have a vaccine.”
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House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, said the new legislation was aimed at allowing Floridians to decide for themselves.
“We’re getting to this place where nuance is lost on everyone,” he said. “You can be for a vaccine or for the opportunity for people to get a vaccine and still not support a massive government-forced vaccination.”
Similar paradigm shifts have been occurring in other Republican-controlled states, including Texas, where business leaders in the past most often saw their interests reflected in the actions of lawmakers. Now, those same lawmakers are instead channeling the wishes of activists who oppose Covid vaccinations altogether under the guise of promoting freedom.
In addition to Florida, at least five other states have considered or held special sessions on pandemic mandates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.