Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has two elections in mind-- a reelection bid in 2022, probably against a big name, well-financed Democrat, and a national race in 2024, either for the GOP presidential nomination or, if Trumpanzee runs, as a contender to be his VP. A case can be made-- and is often made-- that DeSantis was the worst governor in the country in terms of how badly he botched the pandemic. Hostile to the CDC guidelines, masks, social distancing, mandates, vaccines, he monkeyed with Florida's pandemic reporting-- and still came out with more deaths and cases on a per capita basis than other big states. But DeSantis prefers to claim that he handled the pandemic better than any other governor. But even by his fudged stats, over 2.3 million Floridians have become ill and around 37,000 have died. Florida usually reports the most new cases everyday and the most daily deaths.
DeSantis' hostility to science has manifested itself in many ways, one of which is to bully local governments and private businesses into throwing precautions to the wind, the way he has. It is illegal in Florida for local governments to issue health mandates and businesses that try to exclude non-vaccinated people can be fined. This weekend, he told Florida's cruise ship industry that they will be fined $5,000 per person they exclude due to COVID-- although the cruise industry is so huge in Florida that he's expected to back down... just the way he did with politically potent Disney. DeSantis pushes around small businesses-- but not big powerful ones that hand out campaign cash... and have lots of lawyers on their payrolls.
Yesterday, writing for Forbes, Suzanne Kelleher reported that "of all the politicians sounding off against 'vaccine passports,' none has made more headline-grabbing hay DeSantis, champion of a law prohibiting businesses in his state from verifying the vaccination status of individuals. 'In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision,' DeSantis said at the bill signing event on May 3. The law is set to go into effect on July 1. That is extraordinarily bad timing for the restart of Florida’s $9-billion cruise industry, which has been on pause since March 2020. DeSantis signed the new law five days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had given the green light for cruise ships to begin sailing from U.S. ports this summer, as long as 98% of crew members and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated."
Now DeSantis and the CDC are locked in a legal standoff that most experts do not expect to end well for the governor. The state of Florida’s lawsuit against the CDC asked the court to declare the agency’s “conditional sail order”-- the framework for restarting cruising-- to be unlawful on the grounds it is unfair to the cruise industry. “The CDC arbitrarily singled out the cruise industry, and their requirements are unlawful,” said Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, via email.
That analysis is “political buffoonery,” says Jim Walker, a maritime attorney whose Cruise Law News blog has accrued nearly 250,000 Facebook followers. Traditionally, it’s the federal government-- not the state government-- that has any interaction with cruise ships. “The CDC ultimately has the power to shut down a cruise ship,” he said. “To suggest that it doesn't have jurisdiction to regulate cruise lines is just utterly preposterous to me.”
No cruise companies joined DeSantis on the lawsuit. A federal judge in Tampa sent lawyers for both sides into mediation with a deadline of June 1.
...Now DeSantis finds himself in a pickle of his own making. “Because of the way the vaccine passport conversation was introduced, it quickly became politicized,” says Brian Castrucci, the president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a private philanthropy that builds community partnerships for public health policy. “The problem for DeSantis is that he’s in a political game of chicken. And the cruise lines are just victims of the politicization of a public health crisis.”
A sleight of hand that DeSantis is trying to pull of to make himself look heroic to the MAGA crowd without costing Florida the $9 billion annual cruise ship industry, would be "revised messaging [that] would assert that the cruise terminal will be in Florida, while 'as soon as you pass through and step on the ship, you’re no longer considered to be local. You’re now in international waters,' said Ritzenthaler, who noted that DeSantis will still be able to say 'that people in Florida will not have to show vaccination proof to go to bars and restaurants and Walmart and Target, but how cruising is a little bit different.'... That argument would be a lot more compelling if only cruise operators themselves didn’t see vaccine requirements as the fastest track back to sailing. After all, way back in early April, Norwegian Cruise Line had announced its intention to require everyone on board its ships to be '100% vaccinated,' and numerous other cruise lines have followed suit. And it’s hard to imagine that cruise lines are hearing much complaining about vaccine mandates from customers. In a February survey of nearly 3,000 Cruise Critic readers, more than eight in 10 (81%) respondents said they would cruise if a vaccine were mandated prior to setting sail, and only 5% said that a vaccine requirement would deter them from cruising. 'If the cruise lines, as private businesses, want to require a vaccine verification, I think that is something they should be allowed to do,' said Castrucci. 'There is no inalienable constitutional right to cruise, so it should be within the cruise lines’ purview to make this decision. You know, it's an unusual political stand for a Republican governor to limit what businesses can do,' Castrucci said. 'Clearly, the governor has painted himself into a corner on this one.'"
Yesterday, the Washington Post's Hannah Knowles discussed how DeSantis' authoritarianism is being skirted in the concert business. "One Florida concert promoter," she wrote, "thinks he has a workaround: offer $18 tickets to anyone who is vaccinated and charge $999.99 for everyone else. 'I’m not denying entry to anyone,' said Paul Williams. 'I’m just offering a discount.' The governor’s office says the unorthodox pricing violates Florida’s rules: 'Charging higher ticket prices for individuals who do not furnish proof of vaccination unfairly discriminates against people who have enumerated rights under Florida law,' said Christina Pushaw, press secretary for the governor’s office, in an email to the Washington Post.'"
But DeSantis' politicization of the issue is causing Williams a lot of problems from the MAGA crowd. "[H]e said he was unprepared for the vitriol that followed: The anti-vaccination Facebook messages, the sudden spam calls, the misspelled email that warned the band their next show could be their 'last' and said: 'You’re fans are going to kill you.'" Williams told Knowles that he "I didn’t know that caring about my community would make me Hitler."
The backlash around a modest event for a couple hundred people underscores the deep divisions over what the United States’ return to normal should look like amid lingering resistance to vaccination. As the rate of shots slow, public health officials have warned that the country may not reach the oft-repeated goal of “herd immunity” against a virus that has killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States and slowed the economy. But some states including Florida have sought to limit businesses’ ability to check vaccinations after a year of coronavirus restrictions becoming politicized.
Asked Saturday whether he regrets the pricing move-- which brought national news coverage-- Williams said: “We’re still sticking to our guns.”
A few of the “discount” tickets were left as of Saturday afternoon, he said; headliner Teenage Bottlerocket’s website listed the St. Petersburg show as having sold out. None of the “standard” price tickets had sold.
Williams said attendees must present photo ID and a coronavirus vaccination card the day of the concert to enter at the lower price, which was reported by Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay.
Miguel Chen, the bassist for Teenage Bottlerocket, said in an interview that his group was eager to get back out after canceling international tour plans during the pandemic-- a devastating time for many in the music scene. Chen said the band’s most recent show was in March 2020.
“It’s obvious that covid and music are going to kind of have to coexist for a while,” he said. “So we had this idea of … let’s contact these promoters and kind of spitball and come up with creative ways to do safe shows.”
Some events are moving outdoors. Others are limiting capacities. Then there was Williams’s idea.
“When we first heard it, we thought it was a joke,” Chen said. But band members had gotten their shots as soon as possible, he said, eager to protect their families and resume playing. They agreed that if Williams thought this was “the best way to safely throw a party in his town, then we back him and we support it,” Chen recalled.
Hailing from Texas-- another Republican-led state where covid-19 restrictions have drawn pushback-- Chen said he’s familiar with the divisions over vaccination and wants to respect people’s views.
But “ I never in my life thought I’d be in a place where I’m getting threatened for trying to play music and spread joy,” he said.
Williams said he did not know of anyone turning to a similar pricing plan. Legal experts told The Post that others in Florida should be wary of following suit, especially when the state’s new law backed by fines takes effect in July.
Such a large price hike for the unvaccinated “violates the spirit” of Florida’s ban on requiring proof of immunization, said Andrew Zelmanowitz, a business lawyer based in Fort Lauderdale. It’s different, he said, from the modest incentive programs many businesses are using to encourage vaccination.
Eric Feldman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school who has expertise in health policy, agreed: “It’s basically saying unless you show us proof of vaccine status, we’re going to treat you really badly.”
Pushaw said that the governor’s office “cannot speculate on what will happen in any specific case” and that the concert would violate the spirit of the executive order.
“There are individuals who have medical issues or religious beliefs that don’t allow them to get vaccinated, and those individuals are members of protected classes,” Pushaw said in an email Saturday. “Also, the governor has been clear on his stance that no one should face discrimination due to vaccination status.”
The executive order says business in Florida may not require “any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-transmission recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business,” similar language to the new law. It says violators are ineligible for state-funded grants or contracts, and it directs state agencies to enforce compliance.
A spokeswoman for Teenage Bottlerocket, Vanessa Burt, said the band understands Williams is operating within the law by offering a discount and has “assured us that he will deal with any hang-ups.”
Williams and Chen said they have gotten support for their promotion of getting vaccinated-- but also anger, underscoring the intensity of the country’s resistance to vaccination. The blowback, Williams said, has extended to the concert venue, a St. Petersburg post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
A man who answered the phone at Post 39 on Saturday said no one was available to talk, but the post seemed to respond to the furor Friday in a Facebook post: “The VFW does not promote any kind of discrimination, this is a place for combat veterans and their families to support each other.”
Dozens of upset people have contacted Williams through his promoter Facebook page, he said. Some are vulgar; some refer to the Holocaust, repeating much-criticized comparisons of vaccination requirements to Nazi persecution and murder of Jews. Williams said that he cannot be sure of the source of a sudden torrent robocalls, but that he was being targeted for his position on vaccinations.
“Your life is fine … and then and then your phone just blows up insane out of nowhere,” he said.