Will DeSantis' Crusade Against Masks in Schools Derail His Re-Election?

Asked about his crusade against mask mandates in Florida public schools last week, Governor Ron DeSantis said "there will be consequences" for schools that defy him.

But a Florida judge threw out his order banning mask mandates, and his approval ratings continue to fall as the number of COVID-19 Delta variant cases rise in his state.

The "consequences" DeSantis warned about may fall not on the public schools he threatened, but on himself in his 2022 re-elect effort.

Florida was second-worst among states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. The state has 6.45% of the country's population, but had 13.96% of the country's cases in the last week.

As DeSantis fights a prolonged battle against masks heading into the fall, with allies making a rare break from him, there is also evidence his standing in the state has slipped.

A Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters in Florida last week found 51% of voters disapprove of his handling of the response to the coronavirus, while 46% approve, with the number among independents sitting at 55% disapprove and 43% approve.

Regarding his handling of public schools, only 44% approved, while 51% did not.

"It is overwhelming the level of disappointment folks have for this governor," Andrew Gillum, who lost to DeSantis in 2018, told Newsweek. "It is worse than an embarrassment, it is costing lives, with two children having died in my children's school district."

Gillum was referring to two children in Leon County who died in August. The email informing parents of the second death went out just hours after Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna ended an option for parents to opt out of their child wearing a mask and decided to defy DeSantis order on mask mandates.

Gillum said he has gone to great lengths not to armchair-quarterback DeSantis' decisions in recent years, not wanting to appear like a sore loser, but his patience has frayed as the governor's decisions have impacted his three children.

He said he recently had to quarantine his daughter because she came in close proximity to a child who contracted COVID. He described how infuriating the process is for parents and teachers who, in lieu of masks, must have a photographic memory to recall if their children were exposed for longer than 30 minutes to someone who has the virus, and whether they were closer than six feet apart at the time.

When that occurs, it triggers 48 hours home from school, and proof of a negative COVID-19 test result is required to return.

"The Leon County opt-out was for individual liberty," Gillum said. "Well, I'm exercising my individual liberty. I don't want my kid at lunchtime or class time next to anyone who is not wearing a mask."

He said DeSantis is gambling with the lives of children.

"The only defense at this stage is a mask," Gillum said. "And knowing that the governor of this state thinks our kids are worth the gamble is, in my opinion, beneath the public trust that he swore to."

On Tuesday, Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare in Leon County reported the number of children with COVID doubled from four to eight, with three critically ill and requiring intensive care.

In addition to the court decision, which DeSantis has appealed, high-profile Florida Republicans don't appear to have the stomach for a prolonged fight against masks.

Senator Marco Rubio told Capitol Hill reporters last week that the mask fight was "a waste of time," and in a radio interview, Senator Rick Scott said "I don't believe the government should be mandating things."

Nikki Fried, Florida's Agriculture Commissioner, who is running in the Democratic primary for governor, hoping to face DeSantis in 2022, tweeted Wednesday about his fight against mask mandates.

"What Florida's governor is doing to our children — choosing his political ambition over their safety — is deplorable, unacceptable, and illegal," she wrote.

The Kids Aren't Alright

As parents worry about a newly raging virus and kids who may be in danger, ideology and politics are taking a backseat for many, which could present problems for DeSantis the longer he fights masks and school districts that defy him.

Manny Ruiz, the CEO of Brilla Media, is the kind of person Republicans in Florida often successfully court. The Cuban-American business owner, who was once a self-described "Reagan Republican," now says he is an independent. But having an uncle who was a political prisoner in Cuba, he is also "devoutly anti-communist." He told Newsweek there is "a lot to respect" about DeSantis, citing his U.S. Navy service.

But Ruiz, who lost his mother Jeannette to the coronavirus in December, said his family has taken the virus seriously from the beginning, following the science, and chided DeSantis for "doubling and tripling down" on his anti-mask stance despite the variant raging across Florida.

"He's not going to change no matter what the death toll is," he said. "The morgue would have to be overflowing for him to capitulate."

Ruiz's losses color his views, but beyond criticizing those who politicize masks on his personal Facebook page, he and his wife have also taken action. Days before starting school, they had their daughters tested for COVID, and all three tested positive. Ruiz wrote that he had no idea how they got the virus, but he had them tested as a courtesy to other families.

"Having lost my mom and other friends," Ruiz said, "it's a good neighbor thing. My freedoms are not tied to someone wearing a mask during a pandemic."

A Florida Republican told Newsweek that DeSantis should be mostly fine coming out of this controversy, citing the state's red tinge, but it will hurt him in one particular way.

Likening Florida to Texas, the source said residents are proud to be from Florida, and there's a sentiment that it is "the home of the free." In that way, it follows the core values DeSantis pushes, with some parents wanting to decide if their child wears a mask or not.

But the source added that campaigns are about coalescing support from like-minded people and using that to fundraise.

"It does help Democrats in that way," the source said. "They can send emails that say 'DeSantis is doing this to our kids, can you chip in five bucks?' It allows them to create urgency."

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faces another legal battle after the state's mask mandate ban was overturned last week, now over a controversial law tied to crimes committed at protests. DeSantis speaks during an event to give out bonuses to first responders held at the Grand Beach Hotel Surfside on Aug. 10, 2021 in Surfside, Fla. Joe Raedle/Getty Images