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WASHINGTON — The White House delivered a stern message on Tuesday to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the Republican’s opposition to mask mandates: “Get out of the way.”
DeSantis has attributed the state’s uptick in COVID-19 cases to seasonal factors and rejected calls to impose a mask mandate. He last week signed an executive order threatening to withhold state funds from school districts that put mask mandates in place to follow federal health guidance for areas experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases.
“Most Republican governors are doing exactly the right thing,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in response to a question about DeSantis. “But if you aren’t going to help, if you aren’t going to abide by public health guidance, then get out of the way and let people do the right thing to lead in their communities, whether they are teachers, university leaders, private sector leaders or others who are trying to save lives.”
For the third consecutive day, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida reached a pandemic high at 11,863 patients. Federal health officials said on Monday that one in three cases of coronavirus nationwide occurred in Florida and Texas last week.
DeSantis has likened the recent surge to the spike in cases last summer.
“These things have a pattern,” he said last month. “We saw the pattern last summer. It’s similar. I think it started a little later. I think people should just be prepared for that.”
At a news conference in the Everglades on Tuesday, DeSantis repeated his belief that the surge will subside soon, saying: “These things come — you know we have summer season for whatever reason in the Sunbelt and particularly Florida, you know. It will probably come back in the winter, just like last year, not as much as the Northeast, but we’ll see.”
DeSantis also downplayed the surge in hospitalizations and did not address the increasing strain on hospital staff.
“Our hospitals are open for business,” he said, adding that in hospitals with high COVID-19 cases, those patients “represent a fraction of the overall hospital beds.”
He said he hopes people won’t steer clear of hospitals because they are afraid of getting the virus, as occurred in the early stages of the pandemic last year. “I don’t want to see a repeat — because of some of the media hysteria — where people who have heart problems or stroke are not going in to get care.”
DeSantis said his administration’s focus has been on getting older people vaccinated. He said that he wasn’t worried about young people getting infected because they are likely to have a less severe case.
“I’d rather have 5,000 cases amongst 20-year-olds than 500 cases among seniors,” he said. “And so I think protecting the vulnerable has been the right way to go.”
Psaki at the White House said leaders should follow public health guidelines and not make it harder for people to put masking and vaccination status requirements into place.
DeSantis is a regular critic of the Biden administration. But he and the Democratic president reached a detente in early July after the collapse of a Surfside condo building, with the Florida governor telling Biden during his Miami visit, “You guys have not only been supportive at the federal level, but we’ve had no bureaucracy.”
Psaki said the White House has been in contact with Florida officials to offer assistance and support with the pandemic, but said she does not expect a call between Biden and DeSantis.
“If we thought it would make a difference, I’m sure he would, but I would say that the president feels you can praise leaders for taking some steps, as he did in that scenario with that tragedy at Surfside where many people’s lives were lost, many families were suffering, while at the same time expressing concern about their handling of a pandemic,” Psaki said.
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