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Throughout March, many states shut down all but essential activity to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Not Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. For weeks, DeSantis refused to close bars, restaurants, and theme parks, allowing large gatherings to continue against the advice of public health officials. The governor, a Republican, finally shut down bars on March 17 but refused to close the beaches or issue a general stay-at-home order. His inaction drew praise from President Donald Trump but allowed the virus to spiral out of control; there are nearly 7,000 COVID-19 cases in the state and 87 deaths, numbers that continue to rise exponentially. Finally, on Wednesday, DeSantis issued an executive order urging Floridians to remain indoors—though it explicitly permits religious services.
The governor’s languorous approach to the outbreak allowed the coronavirus to spread silently for weeks in a state with a large population of elderly, vulnerable residents. While DeSantis dragged his feet, another Florida official took the lead in responding to the crisis. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s response to the outbreak stands in stark contrast with DeSantis’. A Democrat, Fried is an independently elected member of the Florida Cabinet whose duties go well beyond agriculture. During the coronavirus crisis, Fried must ensure that children still receive free meals despite school closures, maintain the food supply chain, keep food banks running, compel grocery stores and gas stations to follow sanitary protocols, and protect consumers from scams and fraud like price gouging. Though she says she and the governor have had constant communication before the virus hit, she has maintained these responsibilities with no help from DeSantis.
On March 20, Fried called on DeSantis to shut down Florida by issuing a statewide stay-at-home order. The governor only granted her request on Wednesday, while I was interviewing Fried about her work and her struggles to break through to the governor. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Joseph Stern: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a commissioner during the pandemic?
Nikki Fried: Our top priority is making sure our kids are still fed. As soon as we got word that schools were going to be closed, our team immediately moved into action getting federal waivers from the USDA allowing our Summer BreakSpot program to start operating. Typically it only operates during the summer when the schools are closed. We had two phone calls a day with every school district across the state of Florida to figure out what programs they were going to put into place to make sure that the 2 million children in our school system who rely on these meals every single day are still being fed. So that has been a huge success in Florida.
How has Gov. DeSantis been working with you throughout this crisis?
We’ve had no communication. The only communication that we have had from the governor’s office was when they canceled our cabinet meeting, which was supposed to be next week. And most of my communication has been with the director of our emergency management—we’ve been keeping him up to date because they have additional resources they can make available. We need to be purchasing food and water and being more strategic for long-term planning. But the communication between myself and the governor has ceased to exist.
Have you tried to reach out to the governor to talk to him?
I have. I have called him personally a handful of times as well as his chief of staff.
And they just don’t pick up?
That is correct.
Why do you think that is?
Not to put words in his mouth, but I don’t know whom the governor is talking to for advice purposes as far as the direction he’s taking the state right now. I don’t know who his advisors are. I think he has become very isolated, and really doesn’t want to hear opposing positions or opinions on what should be done in the state of Florida.
Have any of your projects or responsibilities that touch on the pandemic been hamstrung by DeSantis?
No. Because we’re independently elected officers and I have a clear silo of responsibilities and powers, I don’t need to get permission from him to do my job and to take care of our state. The only thing that is hindering is the health and wellness of our state. That’s why I’ve been pushing very hard for us to shut down.
How do you feel about his refusal to issue a shutdown order for so many weeks as the virus spread?
We called for a shutdown 12 days ago. Because I was reading the same models that he is, looking at the same data, and seeing that we had to make some tough decisions, because our population is so similar to Italy—21 percent of our population is 65 and over. I understand he is in a tough spot, having to weigh the health of our state versus economic stability, and I still hope today that I’m wrong, he’s right, and his approach is the right one. But hope isn’t a policy. If he’s wrong, our state will be devastated. It’s not just the loss of lives—our entire economy is reliant on tourism. Agriculture is the No. 2 economic driver but tourism is No. 1. So much of our workforce is in hospitality. And until we are able to beat this virus, our tourism is not going to come back, which means our economy is not going to come back. And that’s why we are emphasizing the importance of slowing down the spread, flattening the curve, getting in front of this, because the devastation to life and prosperity could be devastating.
How would you describe the governor’s approach to the pandemic?
He has been relying on our local governments to put the shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders. And a lot of our mayors and city commissioners have stepped up. They’ve shown leadership. But the governor is piecemealing the state and that’s not how Florida operates. People travel across the state on an everyday basis. People may work in downtown Miami but live in Broward County, or work in downtown Orlando and live in Seminole County. And so people are traveling our state all the time.
It’s dangerous to think that you can just cut off south Florida and stop the spread. You’re hearing this from epidemiologists across the entire country, even the experts that Trump is talking to. They’re saying, “Shut down the state.” Some of our rural communities and counties don’t have any cases yet, but if you look at the models, they show that it’s going to be all over our entire state eventually. All it takes is one person driving from one part of our state to another, stopping at a gas station, going into that convenience store, and infecting that worker—that will get an entire community infected. So it really is prudent to be doing what is best for the citizens of our state, and that is to shut us down.
Why do you think DeSantis refused to issue a stay-at-home order while so many other governors were shutting down their states?
We’re hearing that the governor was listening to the White House, and the White House said last week that the whole country will be back open by Easter. He was taking a lot of his cues from the president and a lot of his cues from big businesses. We know that the Chamber of Commerce has been really pushing him to not shut down the state. And I think that’s who he has been listening to. He fundamentally believes that that’s not the right decision.
What do you make of DeSantis scapegoating out-of-state visitors for Florida’s outbreak?
It sounds like something our president would do. Let’s deal with the problem at hand. This is not the time to start blaming other people or states or countries. We have people today in hospitals who are dying in the state of Florida. Let’s focus on them. Let’s focus on how we are going to prevent the spread. Putting blame on others doesn’t get people back to work faster. It doesn’t save those lives. It doesn’t get an additional ventilator. And all it’s doing is hiding the ball and trying to deflect what’s really happening in our own state.
DeSantis has also refused to let a cruise ship dock in the state. There’s a coronavirus outbreak on the ship and four people have died already. [Note: After this interview, DeSantis agreed to let the ship’s 49 Floridian passengers ashore but turned away the rest.] Do you agree with his decision?
This is a tough decision, but you have to also look at humanitarian effects. You’ve got people on board that ship who are sick. I imagine the resources are limited as far as health care supplies and food. We’ve got to do what’s best for our citizens, but we have to remember that those people on that ship are human beings. We’ve got to take responsibility and there’s ways to triage this. We could be opening up tents and getting in supplies from other states to deal with these individuals. We could be testing passengers as they get off the ship. I don’t think that keeping them on board indefinitely is humanitarian.
Just FYI, as we were speaking, the governor released an executive order directing Floridians to stay at home.