(CNN) Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has a message for President Joe Biden: He's not getting out of the way even as his rejection of masking and public health guidance risks fueling his state's raging Covid-19 cases.
DeSantis relished the chance to climb on a national stage to battle Biden on Wednesday, after the President accused him and Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott -- who preside over the two states with most new infections over the past week -- of worsening a pandemic that once seemed to have abated.
The confrontation was the latest sign of how DeSantis -- who is expected to be a top contender in the next Republican presidential primary if former President Donald Trump doesn't run -- is weaponizing his stewardship of the emergency to further his own political aspirations, previewing a possible 2024 White House matchup if Biden seeks reelection.
In a new offensive against federal health authorities on Wednesday, DeSantis slammed US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice that kids -- including those under 12 who cannot be yet vaccinated -- should wear masks in class. DeSantis has previously threatened to withhold funding for schools that require masks for students, vowing to defend the rights of parents to decide on masking for their own kids. It's a stance that effectively allows individuals to decide whether to fight the virus, a position at odds with experience showing community action is the only way to stop the spread.
Taking his rhetoric up a notch, DeSantis also accused New York City, which is requiring proof of vaccination for entry to bars or restaurants, of creating a "bio-medical security state" that infringed the values of a free society.
"Joe Biden suggests if you don't do locked down policies then you should 'get out of the way.' But let me tell you this, if you are coming after the rights of parents in Florida, I'm standing in your way," said DeSantis, who has also accused the media of drumming up "hysteria" about his state's plight. The comments, which ignited yet another politicized controversy over the pandemic, may be interpreted by critics as a new attempt by the governor to distract from bad news in his state.
On Tuesday, Biden called on local officials, including the governors of Texas and Florida, to use their power to save lives. "Please help: if you aren't going to help, please get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing."
Florida, which now only reports Covid-19 cases on a weekly basis, racked up 110,000 new infections over the last week. It accounted for nearly 1 in 5 of the US tally on its own, a fact that helped draw the President's ire. Its Covid-19 hospitalizations have reached a record high and deaths are rising again. The Florida Hospital Association said it expects 60% of hospitals in the state to face a "critical staffing shortage" in the next seven days.
But the worsening picture has not budged DeSantis from a consistent position that has made him a hero among conservatives who view mask guidance and pro-vaccine campaigns as infringing on individual civil liberties.
By choosing to stress the rights of parents over schools that want to impose mask requirements, and by signing an executive order to outlaw "vaccine passports," DeSantis has made decisions through a political prism that downplays guidance by public health experts and the science of epidemiology.
He has, for instance, denounced "Faucism" in a slam at the federal government's top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. There is no doubt that DeSantis is speaking for millions of people on the right who have tired of government health advice, and want to take their own chances with a virus many of them do not believe to be as serious as it is.
With these voters in mind, and in perhaps his most nakedly partisan comment yet, DeSantis struck the electric rail of conservative politics on Wednesday -- the southern border -- to hit back at Biden.
He accused the President -- baselessly -- of allowing every coronavirus variant in the world into the US because of lax enforcement at the US-Mexico border, which has seen huge flows of undocumented migrants trying to cross this year.
"Why don't you do your job? Why don't you get this border secure and until you do that, I don't want to hear a blip about Covid from you," DeSantis said, reading from prepared remarks in an orchestrated counter-attack Wednesday.
The governor was not just hitting a favorite talking point of conservative media. He gave every impression of seeking a scapegoat for the rampant spread of Covid-19 in his own state as he trashes public health recommendations.
The conservative talking point that the border is wide open is not true. Most undocumented migrants are being turned away. And the idea that the spread of the Delta variant across the country is being driven by border-crossers is not credible. The US is, after all, recording almost 100,000 new infections a day. And the problem is generally worse in conservative states most resistant to vaccines and where political leaders often ignore federal health guidance.
"It's extremely frustrating. It's extremely tragic. And the reason we are having these surges is because of these leaders," Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst and former Baltimore health commissioner, told CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" on Wednesday.
The DeSantis policies threaten to trigger chaos as kids go back to school in Florida. Several school districts are considering defying the governor, even at the risk of losing funding. One school superintendent, Leon County's Rocky Hanna, wrote to DeSantis, pleading for a temporary mask requirement. He said that he supported a previous decision by the governor to let parents decide on masks but that the highly infectious Delta variant had changed the situation.
"I'm asking you to allow us the flexibility and the autonomy to make the decisions for our schools that best fit our local data and information in Leon County," Hanna wrote.
"It is the challenge of every leader to not allow pride or politics cloud our better judgment, and to be guided by community input, science and experts in the field," Hanna wrote.
One Republican leader who has allowed worsening circumstances to change his mind is Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said on Tuesday he regrets signing a state law banning mask mandates earlier this year.
But unlike DeSantis, Hutchinson has the luxury of a political career that is winding down, since he is term-limited and cannot run for reelection.
To make good on pre-game talk of being a top-tier GOP primary contender, DeSantis must first secure his reelection next year, one reason why his strategy on the virus is risky. If the current surge in cases and jammed hospitals in Florida is matched by a subsequent towering wave of deaths, he could be cast by rivals as a leader who knowingly let Floridians die to advance his own political career. In 2018, DeSantis only beat Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum by just over 32,400 votes, so winning a second term in Tallahassee is by no means certain, and small shifts in support could define the race.
DeSantis is arguing, however, that his approach -- prioritizing vaccines for seniors -- will ensure that deaths in the current Covid wave will not reach catastrophic levels. If he is right, his political strategy may work, albeit at the cost of more suffering in his state. His rhetoric alone about the pandemic is likely to endear him even further to Trump's base, which twice drove the ex-President to fairly clear victories in Florida in 2016 and 2020, despite its reputation as a perennial knife-edge swing state.
The impression is that DeSantis thinks his more confrontational posture on the pandemic will bolster him in a future Republican primary.
At an event in Utah late last month he mocked new CDC mask guidance, for instance. His hardening of tone followed an accusation by South Dakota's Republican Gov. Kristi Noem -- another potential 2024 contender -- that some of the governors she could face in a presidential primary lacked the "grit" to face down federal health officials.
"We've got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn't shut down their states; that they didn't close their regions; that they didn't mandate masks," Noem said at a Conservative Political Action Conference event in Dallas last month. Her comment was a clear swipe at DeSantis and Abbott, who have been among the most unenthusiastic adherents of CDC advice, but cannot match her pandemic denialism.
The decision of DeSantis to challenge Covid protocols as the pandemic returns with a vengeance has dismayed health experts.
Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the US Food and Drug Administration vaccines advisory committee, said on CNN "Newsroom" on Tuesday that decisions by DeSantis were "inexplicable" and that he was "a friend of the virus."
Admiral Brett Giroir, the Trump administration's coronavirus testing czar, said on CNN's "New Day" on Wednesday that he didn't agree with restrictions put in place by DeSantis and Abbott on preventing school masking requirements.
"I do support a lot of what Governor DeSantis and Governor Abbott do, but I don't align with them on this," he said.