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"This is a deeply emotional issue:" Florida Gov. DeSantis' handling of COVID-19 helped shape his reelection campaign

How COVID shaped DeSantis' political image
How a controversial COVID-19 response shaped Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' political image 06:44

COVID-19 still looms large in Florida's gubernatorial race and helped shape Gov. Ron DeSantis' image on the national political stage. Political analysts say DeSantis' handling of the pandemic may have benefitted him in his reelection campaign.

In March of 2020, as the pandemic was unfolding, DeSantis joined governors across the U.S. in announcing shutdowns in the state. But the effort to keep the public safe also meant shuttering schools and squeezing people's ability to make a living.

As frustration mounted, the pandemic response to whether or not states would follow federal guidelines appeared to fall on party lines. Some states lifted stay-at-home orders, reopened schools for in-person learning and dropped mask mandates months before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considered it wise.

"People know that Florida is a free state," DeSantis said earlier this year as he summed up his stance. "They're not gonna have you shut down. They're not gonna have restrictions."

Georgia v Florida
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis looks on before the start of a game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators at TIAA Bank Field on October 29, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. James Gilbert/Getty Images

For DeSantis, the way he handled the pandemic in Florida meant reinvention. He was seen as a national hero to some and a national target to others.

So, more than two years later, a question remains: Who was right? DeSantis or his blue state counterparts who took a more cautious approach to reopening?

"We were right and they were wrong. And millions of families in Florida are better for it," DeSantis said during his state of the state address this year.

Dr. David Agus, a CBS News medical contributor, believes such declarations are impossible to substantiate.

"I can't say one right, one wrong. And that's part of the problem. It's not a binary black/white issue," he said.

One study tried to compare the pandemic response of different states, taking into consideration the economy, education and public health. "A Final Report Card on the States' Response to COVID-19," written in part by researchers from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation and Committee to Unleash Prosperity, gave Florida an "A," while California and New York got failing grades.

But an article in the journal "Nature" in September about what scientists learned from COVID lockdowns noted a problem: weighing "harms and benefits often comes down not to scientific calculations, but to value judgements." 

"Masks work in the right setting, shutdowns work in the right setting," Agus said. "And that being said, in the wrong setting, they have very little role. And so you cannot be absolute about them."

When asked if DeSantis deserves any credit for his COVID-19 policy, Agus responded, "I think he did provide leadership. And, you know, I respect that part. And I give him credit for that."

Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University, said DeSantis' support for reopening in a state that practically runs on tourism and the service industry put him in a stronger position during his reelection run than when he first campaigned.

"He ran very much in the shadows of [former President Donald] Trump. And this has really created his own image," Moreno said, explaining the image is that, "He stood up for freedom. He stood up for opening up."

It's how DeSantis now represents himself — but it's an image that ignores a lot of heartache, according to opponent Charlie Crist.

"Over six million of my fellow Floridians have gotten this pandemic. And we don't yet know the terms of, you know, long COVID," Crist told CBS News in August of this year. "You know, so, no, I don't think his record on this is sterling. I don't think it's admirable. I think it's appalling."

President Biden Attends Rally For Democratic Candidates In Florida
President Joe Biden stands with Senate candidate, Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist during a rally at Florida Memorial University on November 01, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Getty Images

Moreno added that what really matters to voters when it comes to COVID-19 aren't facts and figures, but feelings.

"This is a deeply emotional issue. If you lost your job, if you lost your house, if someone close to you died, all these things play into it. So, we're not really voting on COVID. We're voting on our personal experience with COVID," Moreno said.

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