A courtroom settlement over withheld Covid-19 data that critics say cost thousands of lives has deflated ’s campaign trail persona as a courageous freedom warrior who kept his state open during a deadly peak of the pandemic.
It comes at a pivotal time for the Florida governor, whose teetering run for the Republican presidential nomination is mired in financial difficulties and collapsing poll numbers in early primary states.
Among the efforts DeSantis has made to try to arrest his slide among Republican hardliners include positioning himself as a champion for “medical freedom”, and defying federal health guidance to advise Floridians against taking new Covid-19 booster shots.
The settlement ends a two-year legal battle between the DeSantis administration and a coalition of Democrats, open government advocates and media outlets that began in June 2021 when the Florida health department ended daily updates of Covid cases, deaths and vaccinations on its online dashboard.
The department will pay the plaintiffs’ $152,000 legal bill and resume regular posting of the data that DeSantis’s communications team insisted at the time was no longer necessary because cases had “significantly decreased” and that Florida was “returning to normal”.
In reality, as DeSantis dismissed reporting on the pandemic as “media hysteria”, the Delta variant of the virus was just taking hold, and cases and fatalities spiked, to a record 385 a day in Florida by September 2021. Simultaneously, Florida led the nation in pediatric Covid hospitalizations.
Critics dubbed DeSantis “the Pied Piper of Covid, leading everybody off a cliff”, as he forged ahead with an executive order banning mask mandates in schools, having already signed legislation awarding himself veto power over coronavirus mandates set by municipalities.
“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,” said , a Democratic former state congressman who filed the lawsuit against the Florida health department, later joined by the Florida Center for Government Accountability.
“Our school leaders were struggling to make informed decisions about how to mitigate the spread of Covid, whether it be masking or social distancing policies, or other strategies. They needed data, they needed information, but the state made it unavailable, then said it didn’t exist.
“All Floridians have a constitutional right to public records and receive them in a timely manner. And what’s interesting about the governor’s arguments about Covid is he repeatedly talks about giving people the choice over masks and vaccinations, but without critical public health data how are they able to make informed choices?”
Smith said the settlement became inevitable when an appeals court ordered the health department earlier this year to produce documents containing Covid data it claimed did not exist.
“The DeSantis administration was caught red handed lying about the existence of these public records in court, repeatedly claiming that the records we were requesting didn’t exist, then saying even if they did exist, they would not share them because they were somehow exempt,” he said.
In a statement to the Guardian, the Florida department of health noted that the settlement did not include any admission of wrongdoing or violation of any law, and that the state had always reported data to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It is unfortunate that we have continued to waste government resources arguing over the formatting of data with armchair epidemiologists who have zero training or expertise,” department spokesperson Jae Williams said, in a swipe at Smith.
Williams said it was inaccurate to say DeSantis had “lost” a court fight. “Governor DeSantis isn’t a party in the settlement agreement,” he said.
Public health analysts, meanwhile, welcomed the resumption of publication of Covid data, and lamented the “politicization” of both the process and the virus.
“There’s no valid excuse for withholding information from the public except in the rare circumstance where there’s a bona fide concern that if you release certain data you’ll cause panic, and that the panic itself would cause more damage than the withholding of the data. I don’t think there was any case for that to be made here,” said Jay Wolfson, distinguished professor of public health, medicine and pharmacy at the University of South Florida.
“It was unfortunate because it didn’t only politicize whatever we were doing about the disease, it politicized medicine and science. It reduced the public’s reliance and belief there was a source of good science behind the medicine they could rely on, and gave them less basis for trust.”
Wolfson added that public confusion was understandable when federal health agencies such as the CDC were recommending vaccination boosters, while DeSantis’s hand-picked state surgeon general warned against them.
“There’s an old term called the sacred trust of medicine. It suggests there’s a special relationship people have with their medical provider, a trust that if you have any questions you consult your physician,” he said.
“The politicization didn’t help because even physicians weren’t sure what to do. In Florida, there was a concern, ‘Do I require my patients to get vaccinated? Do I suggest it, or do I run the risk, certainly recently, of being sanctioned by the state if I do?’”
For Smith, a prominent critic of DeSantis, the episode marks another failure for the governor’s sagging run for his party’s presidential nomination.
“Folks have largely moved on from Covid to more pressing issues that are impacting their lives, property insurance, rising costs and prices in Florida, access to health care, housing, there’s so much that’s on people’s minds the governor is not talking about and doesn’t have any solutions for,” he said.
“He launched his presidential campaign with a continuation of his war on woke and culture wars and gender ideology and all kinds of stuff. When Republican voters grew tired of that he shifted over to his record on Covid, which still didn’t earn him any points. He keeps changing the subject to see what sticks, but at the end of the day, whatever he’s selling people aren’t buying.”