Psaki warns DeSantis: We're looking for ways to help the Florida public schools that are resisting you on masks

I don’t know what she has in mind but this is the logical conclusion to the political bigfooting that’s been happening as Florida’s schools get set to reopen for the fall semester. Some local districts wanted kids to mask up but Ron DeSantis signed a state executive order banning local mask mandates. We’re going to impose those mandates anyway, a few superintendents told him. At which point DeSantis’s administration began threatening a variety of penalties for noncompliance — withholding funds from the district, possibly withholding salaries from school board members, and providing anti-mask families with vouchers to send their public-school children to private school instead.

Two can play at that game, Psaki hints here. If Florida wants to withhold funds from municipalities to pressure them on school COVID policies, maybe the feds will start withholding funds from Florida to exert pressure the other way.

Although, as I listen to her, I think what she means is the White House figuring out a way to provide federal funds directly to Florida school districts to improve safety precautions instead of waiting for the DeSantis administration to do anything about it. Blocking funding to Florida for any reason would be a dicey political proposition for a party that hasn’t fared well there over the last three cycles.

It was apparently true as of a few weeks ago that the great bulk of the $15 billion Florida had received from the feds in ARP funding hadn’t yet been distributed to schools. The state legislature couldn’t get together on how to spend the money during budget negotiations in April; states were supposed to submit their plans for spending relief funds to the feds by June 7 but Florida missed the deadline, freezing the $15 billion.

Maybe Biden’s going to try to go over DeSantis’s head by providing some funding to Florida’s schools while they’re waiting for the state government to act. That would be a usurpation of the state’s authority. But as we saw with the CDC’s eviction moratorium, the Biden White House is all about usurping the authority of other branches of government in the name of addressing a COVID emergency.

Normally the quote below might be taken as a sign that they’ve thought better of that. But remember, this same guy admitted that extending the moratorium probably wasn’t legal before he turned around and did it anyway:

If nothing else, hinting about going over DeSantis’s head and engaging directly with the school districts is a way to draw public attention to the defiant school officials in Florida who won’t comply with DeSantis’s order banning mask mandates. Dems think that conflict is a winner for them with parents who are jittery about what Delta might do in schools. If they can position themselves as the party that’s looking out for kids’ health while caricaturing DeSantis as an ogre who cares more about protecting his no-mandates brand than about children, it can help them in 2022 and potentially in 2024 if he’s the GOP nominee.

There’s an epidemiological mystery underlying the self-interested political squabbling between the Biden and DeSantis administrations. Namely, why is Florida having such a hard time of things at the moment?

It’s not the only state that’s in the soup, of course. News broke this afternoon that Texas now has fewer staffed ICU beds available than at any point of the pandemic. The metro Austin areas has two open staffed ICU beds total for a population of more than two million people. That’s an almost unimaginable development given that 45 percent of the statewide population is fully vaccinated. Various southern states are suffering, just as they did last summer. But Florida’s a special case since it happens to have the highest vaccination rate of any state won by Trump last fall. At 50 percent fully vaccinated, it’s perfectly aligned with the national average, not below average. Kids haven’t been in school either so school mask mandates or the lack thereof aren’t playing a part in transmission (yet). And of course plenty of adults are masking voluntarily due to fear of Delta even if there’s no mandate in place requiring them to do so.

All of that should be keeping a lid on the outbreak. And yet, read this analysis by Philip Bump and you’ll find Florida performing much worse at the moment than we’d expect compared to how other states with similar vaccination rates are doing. According to Bump, Florida’s seeing more than three times as many cases, four times as many hospitalizations, and three times as many deaths as similarly situated states. Average daily deaths there have more than quadrupled in less than a month. It’s terrible. But there’s no obvious reason why it’s so terrible given its vaccination rate.

I tend to agree with DeSantis. I think it’s mostly seasonality at work:

The south was besieged last summer, now it’s besieged again this summer thanks to Delta. The fact that Florida is a tourist magnet must be contributing too. One of the blue states having a tough time lately has been Nevada, home to Las Vegas; it’s not hard to imagine Americans across the country having decided to celebrate the country’s “hot vax summer” by taking the vacations they skipped last year, bringing COVID with them to major tourist destinations. (Not coincidentally, maybe, California’s also seen a rise in cases lately.) Inasmuch as DeSantis is to blame for anything happening in his state, it may be that his message about Florida being a land of freedom instead of a “Faucian dystopia” has penetrated the public consciousness and attracted visitors who are looking to enjoy a taste of the life they enjoyed pre-pandemic. No masks, lots of cutting loose indoors. That’s good for Florida’s tourism industry, not so good for its hospital industry. But I think he’s right that this will calm down soon-ish due to seasonality. Then it’ll be the north’s turn.

Here’s Biden dinging DeSantis today, although not by name.