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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media as he visited the drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination site at On Top of the World in Ocala, Fla., on March 5, 2021.Alan Youngblood/The Associated Press

In spite of his Yale and Harvard Law School educations, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was a fool in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, wasn’t he? That, at any rate, was the take of the COVID-19 cognoscenti and the woke liberal media crowd just a few months ago.

The Donald Trump-worshipping Governor defied the national trend of statewide lockdowns and mask-wearing ordinances. He barred counties from fining people for COVID-19 safety violations. He opened restaurants, bars, beaches and schools.

“Even by Florida Standards, Gov. Ron DeSantis is a COVID-19 Catastrophe,” cried a Washington Post headline. On the streets of the Sunshine State, some Democrats wore masks emblazoned with the words “My Governor is an Idiot.” Critics predicted that disaster loomed.

Until it never happened.

The reputedly reckless approach of Mr. DeSantis is proving to be far less than foolhardy. Florida’s per-capita COVID-19 infection and death rates are far down the list of states – not even in the top half – while its economy, which the Governor kept open, is faring far better than that of most states.

Florida’s unemployment rate is 5.1 per cent, several points below that of other big states such as California and New York. Floridians have been able to live relatively normal lives, and students have been able to get normal educations.

The country heard President Joe Biden last week saying that he hoped to see all American families reunited by July 4. Mr. DeSantis’s rejoinder? “We’ve been doing that for over a year in Florida.”

He was called “DeathSantis” a few months ago. Now he’s the toast of the Republican Party. At its big national convention last month in Orlando, where the Governor had home-field advantage, he trounced all comers in a straw poll for who should be the party’s 2024 nominee.

In terms of pedigree for a contender, the party could do much worse than this raw-boned righty. At Yale, he was a baseball star like George H.W. Bush. He is a decorated war veteran for his service in Iraq. He’s young, 42, and burly in build and temperament. He has experience as a Congressman, he has Mr. Trump in his corner, and unlike the former president, his natural habitat is not a knowledge-free zone.

Even the once highly critical New York Times ran an article on the weekend putting the Governor and his state in a rather good light. While pointing out that Florida isn’t exactly booming – tourism was bound to take a huge hit from the pandemic, and did – the report added that “in a country just coming out of the morose grip of coronavirus lockdowns, Florida feels unmistakably hot.”

Not everybody is happy, certainly not the liberally inclined. More than 32,000 Floridians dying from the virus is nothing to boast about. And the Governor has had a big advantage, they say, with the state’s climate allowing the population to spend time outdoors, where the virus is more easily dispersed and diluted.

Likely helping his cause was the fact that many Floridians ignored his advice and took precautions anyway. Had Mr. DeSantis not flouted public health measures, far fewer might have died.

What he did, detractors say, was sociopathic, and inspired others. One couple reportedly went to a funeral home to pay their last respects whereupon the barefaced funeral parlour director, following the Governor’s lead, chided them for wearing masks.

But Florida is doing better than several other warm-weather states. California has a slightly lower death rate, but the proportion of that state’s total population that is senior-aged isn’t as high as Florida’s.

Unlike New York, where the per-capita death rate is one of the worst in the country, Florida didn’t permit hospitals to send COVID-19 patients back to nursing homes. That likely saved a lot of lives.

While in Washington, Mr. DeSantis co-founded the conservative Freedom Caucus. He has come out in favour of allowing people to carry firearms openly. He supported Mr. Trump’s bid to overturn last fall’s election results. Much of his popularity, he maintains, comes from his quick-tongued Trumpian aptitude at what has become one of America’s favourite sports: harpooning media elites.

Although the Governor is confident that vaccines will solve the remaining problems, his state isn’t out of the woods yet. COVID-19 infection numbers have ratcheted up in recent weeks. A dangerous variant is reportedly more prevalent in Florida than it is elsewhere.

But Mr. DeSantis is riding high in the meantime. With his science-defying apostasy in the handling of the pandemic, he’s done something that will endear him to Republicans for a long time: He’s made the liberal establishment eat crow.

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