WASHINGTON — Case counts are mounting in Texas and Florida, the two states where one-third of all infections nationwide were recorded last week. But the Republican leaders there have strenuously resisted public health advice, pushing back against mask mandates and vaccination requirements. That has led to mounting frustration within the White House with Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, and Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House had offered help to both governors. She described the talks with Austin and Tallahassee as ongoing, suggesting that the offer from Washington had not yet been accepted. The standstill has plainly exasperated the White House, which wants to see the spike in the Delta variant subside. That will be impossible without curbing its spread across the Southeast.
“If you aren't going to help, if you aren't going to abide by public health guidance, then get out of the way and let people do the right thing,” Psaki said on Tuesday in response to a question from Yahoo News about DeSantis and Abbott in particular.
Asked to clarify what she meant by having the two governors “get out of the way,” Psaki elaborated, “That means don't ban, don't make it harder for people to put requirements on masks — or asking for vaccination status — into law.”
Psaki had also addressed the worsening situation in Florida and Texas on Monday, alluding to the political ambitions of both governors, who are widely believed to harbor presidential aspirations. “Leaders are going to have to choose whether they’re going to follow public health guidelines or they’re going to follow politics,” she said.
The DeSantis administration quickly punched back. “By dismissively ignoring Gov. DeSantis’ efforts to protect vulnerable Floridians, Psaki is the one playing politics with the pandemic,” his communications director, Christina Pushaw, told Fox News on Monday.
Abbott has denounced what he described as “draconian controls” related to the pandemic, arguing that undocumented migrants at the border with Mexico presented a greater problem than the spread of the Delta variant.
The friction between the White House and the two governors is not unlike what took place during the Trump administration, when President Donald Trump frequently fought with Democratic governors like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Andrew Cuomo of New York.
The difference today is that the end of the pandemic appeared to be at hand only weeks ago: President Biden went so far as to declare “independence” from the coronavirus during the Fourth of July holiday. No independence, however, can be possible without widespread vaccination, which the United States has not yet achieved. Last week, the European Union overtook the U.S. in vaccinations after lagging behind for the first half of 2021.
Since the arrival of Delta in the United States late in the spring, some Republican governors, such as Alabama’s Kay Ivey, Jim Justice of West Virginia and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, have forcefully spoken about the need for people to get vaccinated. DeSantis and Abbott appear to be following a more ideological approach, one that dismisses new restrictions as unnecessary and oppressive.
To be sure, the Delta spike will not be nearly as severe as previous surges of the coronavirus, most experts agree. On Monday the White House announced that 70 percent of American adults are now vaccinated. Biden had hoped to reach that goal by Independence Day.
The White House has shown frustration with some reporting about the Delta variant, with one of Psaki’s deputies taking to Twitter to lambaste the Washington Post and the New York Times for their allegedly hyperbolic reporting on a recent Delta cluster in Provincetown, Mass. Although an epidemiological investigation of that cluster made clear that Delta is more transmissible than previous strains of the coronavirus, the vaccines are highly effective in preventing infection in the first place.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended renewed masking, including for vaccinated people, after studying the Provincetown outbreak. After the small vacation town — which swells with revelers in the summer months — reimposed a mask mandate of its own, infection rates there plummeted. Masks compensate for the vaccines’ lower efficacy in keeping down Delta’s transmission rate.
Parts of the Northeast and Pacific West rushed to reimpose mask mandates of their own, even though populations there — as in Provincetown — are highly vaccinated and therefore protected to begin with.
The situation is reversed in Florida, Texas and their neighbors, where vaccination rates are low and resistance to masking is high. There, and in other Republican enclaves, the notion of masking up again was met with strong resistance and vows of defiance. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a centrist Democrat, announced Monday that his state would be reimposing a mask mandate, providing a potential test case for stricter measures in the region.
DeSantis, in particular, has willingly assumed the role of White House foe, a role he appears to believe could help him politically, should he seek the presidency in 2024. He spent much of the spring and early summer celebrating his record in handling the pandemic. Critics say that record is exaggerated and inaccurate.
In recent days, DeSantis has fought the imposition of new mask mandates, including in schools. Before that, he fought the cruise industry in court for trying to impose vaccine mandates in Florida ports.
The frustration with Abbott and DeSantis is surely informed by the fact that both men appear as if they would like the office currently occupied by Biden. They have little political incentive to follow his administration’s guidelines, as the Republican base would almost certainly penalize them for doing so.
A reporter asked Psaki on Tuesday if the president had spoken to DeSantis about Florida’s spike. "If we thought it would make a difference,” she answered, “I'm sure he would.”
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