Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during a press conference on the status of the Covid-19 pandemic in the state, at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on July 13, 2020. Despite criticisms of a relatively relaxed response to the pandemic, the state is not doing worse than other parts of the US that have made draconian restrictions – for now, at least. Photo: AFP / Chandan Khanna

In Miami, things are about as normal as can be, even if most people wear face masks to protect themselves from Covid-19. Stores are all open. Diners can eat inside restaurants and drink in bars. Beaches are crowded.

There are even opportunities for youthful, nighttime, riotous fun – street parties, drunkenness, crime. Even gunshots, and in this town there’s nothing more normal than that.

All this lively activity reflects a decision by Governor Ron DeSantis to open his state for business and pleasure. Beginning late last summer, people were authorized to go to work and to school and as a step to openness, amusement parks reopened and outdoor restaurant dining was allowed.

Back then, DeSantis came under withering public-health and journalistic attacks for returning life to its everyday rhythms.

No more. Florida’s vivaciousness has been widely noticed and envied. Writers and broadcasters who once labeled DeSantis as a sort of mass murderer now praise him as having “won” over the pandemic.

That’s because the state’s rates of contagion, hospitalization and deaths are no worse than many others and better than some that imposed tough restrictions. The unemployment rate is 4.8%, less than the national average of more than 7%. People from the frigid and locked-down north have flocked in for sunshine and liberty, if not licentiousness.  

DeSantis’ rehabilitation represents a reversal of the coronavirus script across the US and Western world. Almost a year ago, much criticism was directed at populist government leaders who played down or mismanaged the virus response.

Chief among the targets was former US president Donald Trump, whose hands-off stewardship and disdain for mask-wearing helped sink his presidency in last year’s white-hot national election.

Similar criticisms hit Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who was roundly condemned for uneven closures of parts of the UK.

Now both have moved from bumbler to hero status. Donald Trump’s aggressive purchase of anti-coronavirus vaccines last year assured the US of a fast start in inoculating its population this year. The same with Boris Johnson, whose country has vaccinated more of its population than any European country.

On the flip side are fallen idols on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief among them in the US is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was once lauded as a straight-talking politician who soothed anxious New Yorkers with his daily televised virus updates.

Newspapers and CNN, where his brother works, heaped praise on him. He won TV’s top award, the Emmy. A male political comedian declared himself an admiring “cuomosexual.”

His admirers ignored a major detail: He put infected old people in nursing homes instead of emergency hospitals. Deaths spiked and his Health Department lied about the numbers.

Cuomo is now under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And the stain is spreading. The governors of Michigan and Pennsylvania, who were once admired for their steady pandemic leadership, are also accused of using nursing homes as dumping grounds for infected old people.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, yet another media darling, is suddenly viewed as incompetent. He imposed harsh lockdowns in his state, the country’s most populous, but still contagions soared. Then he was photographed maskless while dining in a posh open-air California restaurant after telling everyone to stay home.

He bowed to teachers’ unions’ demands to keep schools closed and he shuttered churches until the US Supreme Court overruled the restriction. This year, 2 million people signed a petition to have him kicked out of office in a recall vote.

European leaders are similarly afflicted. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, is under fire for ordering insufficient numbers of vaccines for the European Union’s 450 million population.

She had boasted that the EU’s performance showed the superiority of the group to individual nation-states. Now she is lashing out at countries that ordered more vaccines by stopping European factories from fulfilling their contracts abroad.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who once won applause for taming the coronavirus, now oversees a spike in infections. Her government is blamed for undermining the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine by saying it is ineffective for certain age groups and then reversing itself.

Unpersuaded Germans are refusing to take the vaccine. Last Saturday, demonstrators protested against Merkel’s latest round of cuts and clashed with police.

Italy’s government, once praised for harsh lockdowns meant to control a vicious outbreak, is facing a fourth wave of contagions. In Finland, which has had relatively few Covid-19 cases, anti-lockdown demonstrations took place across the country last week. In Austria, hundreds of protesters in Vienna marched against the government’s virus restrictions.

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that the virus has proved unpredictable. Making political hay out one leader’s success compared with another’s failure is risky. That’s especially true when the criticism had as much to do with political animus – say, dislike of Trump, or opposition to Boris Johnson – than actual performance. Cuomo and Merkel were often set up as props to contrast with perceived inept leaders.

And beware. Who was down before and is up today may fall again tomorrow. If, for instance, Florida endures another outbreak after this spring’s tourism boom, DeSantis will be hearing a lot of “I told you so’s.”

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.