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Florida Misled Public About Seriousness Of The Pandemic, Paper Reports

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida was one of the first states to see community spread of the coronavirus, and the pandemic there has just never let up. The state trails only California and Texas in the total number of diagnosed cases. But a new investigation from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has found Florida's government, led by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, has engaged in what the newspaper calls, quote, "a pattern of spin and concealment" since Day 1, misleading the public about how bad the pandemic has been and what people should be doing to prevent it from getting worse. Cindy Krischer Goodman is one of the reporters behind the investigation. She joins us now.

Welcome.

CINDY KRISCHER GOODMAN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So from the very beginning, you found that Governor DeSantis showed a reluctance to communicate with the public on the coronavirus. Can you just give us one example that stuck out to you from March?

KRISCHER GOODMAN: The Department of Health was very reluctant. They didn't want to tell us whether anyone was being tested in our state or suspected of having the virus. You know, we knew the virus was highly infectious, but we didn't know if it had come to our state or not. And when we were asking about it, we were told that we could not have that information, that they did not want to provide that information to Floridians.

And then shortly after, they announced their first case and their first deaths. That was in early March. Just a little while after, DeSantis was being asked, was there community spread in the state? And he said, no, there's no community spread. It was actually Dr. Fauci who mentioned that Florida was one of the regions of the country where they were having community spread.

CHANG: So this pattern of spin and concealment that you reported on - it sort of begs the question, why? Why would Florida's government deliberately hide information about the pandemic from its own citizens?

KRISCHER GOODMAN: Florida is an important - was an important swing state in the election. So DeSantis wanted to make sure businesses were opened up and people were employed, and schools were operating. And he has always, you know, been a big proponent of the same approach that Donald Trump has taken. And that was particularly important leading up to the election.

CHANG: He even told the state health department not to talk about COVID, right?

KRISCHER GOODMAN: One of the biggest discoveries that we found in our reporting was during the month of October, leading up to the election, the mandate came down from Tallahassee, the state capital, telling the local health spokespeople not to talk about coronavirus, not to talk about the pandemic. You could talk about carbon monoxide poisoning or awareness around lead poisoning or, you know, this is Diabetes Awareness Month - anything but the virus. And that's what was happening. Health officials were not putting out any information about the virus, and that happened to be around the same time Florida's numbers began to creep up again. We started seeing the number of cases increase, but there was no messaging.

CHANG: Did DeSantis' office articulate any reason to the state health department to not talk about COVID?

KRISCHER GOODMAN: They were not given a reason. They called it blue sky messaging. Let's talk about the sky being blue. Let's not talk about what's happening with the virus in the state.

CHANG: Why isn't it a valid defense for Florida's government in all of this reporting - for them to just say, look; Florida is a big tourism state. Shutting down parts of its economy would have a massive impact on the state's bottom line, not to mention jobs. That is why we weren't trying to keep talking about how bad COVID was. Why is that not valid as a defense?

KRISCHER GOODMAN: It's not just a tourist state. We have an elderly population here that is at risk. We don't have a mask mandate, so you have a lot of people out there in bars and restaurants. Everything's open here. So you want to put that messaging out there as much as possible to take precautions and especially as the numbers were going up and especially as Thanksgiving weekend was coming along. And that messaging just wasn't there.

And then we reported the Saturday night before Thanksgiving, our downtown Fort Lauderdale bars were jam-packed with people - young people, no masks, all crowded together, standing in line outside bars, spilling into the streets, no masks. You could tell the messaging did not get through to them.

CHANG: Cindy Krischer Goodman is a reporter with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel talking to us about their investigation into Florida's coronavirus response.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

KRISCHER GOODMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.