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Florida Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates' Focus On Pandemic Not Hurting, Recent Polling Suggests

Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist Campaign for Governor
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Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist speaks during a press conference via Zoom and Facebook Live on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.

A leading pediatrician in Florida claims she’s received threatening messages for publicly advocating for school mask requirements.

“First time in my life that I’ve gotten hate mail — which is very disheartening,” said Dr. Lisa Gwynn, the president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Gwynn spoke during a virtual campaign press conference with Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg) on Monday. Before the event officially got underway, she commented to a parent on the Zoom conference call. “I just can’t believe how polarized our country is.”

Her comments come amid a statewide political fight over mask requirements in schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is threatening to withhold funding from local districts that require students to wear masks without allowing parents to opt out their children. Still several districts are keeping their mask mandates in place, and dozens of parents are suing the governor over his efforts to stop local districts from setting their own policy.

Though many parents have called for mask-optional policies for students, a majority of respondents in one recent survey expressed support for school-wide mask requirements.

Florida Democrats seeking to unseat DeSantis have focused heavily on the pandemic since the most recent surge in COVID-19 cases. A recent survey of voters indicates this strategy isn't hurting at a time when DeSantis is also at odds with many parents, doctors and several local school districts over student mask policies.

In August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to recommend students wear masks in school.

Crist’s latest campaign event focused on his opposition to DeSantis’ executive order regarding masks.

“This is not about calling for lockdowns or closing down our economy,” Crist said. “It’s about taking small, common-sense steps to protect our children and our families and prevent another lockdown from ever happening again.”

Crist was a Republican when he served as governor between 2007-2011. He’s attacked DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic in an effort to get his old job back — this time as a Democrat.

“The governor doesn’t care about anyone but himself and what’s best for him,” Crist said. “We have seen school closures and thousands of students and teachers sent home under mandatory quarantines. The governor does not know what he’s doing and in fact is a direct threat to our health and safety.”

In a survey conducted by St. Pete Polls, nearly 4,000 Democratic, Republican and independent voters across the state were interviewed over the phone in early August. Results show a majority of respondents— 62 % — supported mask requirements for children in school.

Democratic state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s campaign to unseat the governor has also focused on pandemic-related issues. Fried’s held regular COVID-19 briefings over the last several weeks. She’s also railed against DeSantis’ efforts to bar schools from requiring masks.

Another recent poll shows Crist and Fried both leading DeSantis by several percentage points — with Crist ahead by a wider margin. The survey was taken between Aug. 14 - 18. It shows Crist leading DeSantis by 12 percentage points in a potential matchup. In another hypothetical contest, Fried led DeSantis by seven percentage points. The poll captures responses from 1,000 likely voters interviewed over landline. Its margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points.

In a statement emailed on Monday, Fried’s campaign highlighted another data point in the survey: DeSantis’ low pandemic approval ratings. About 54% of respondents reported viewing his “handling of the overall COVID-19 pandemic” unfavorably. “The most important number in this poll isn't that Nikki Fried is leading DeSantis — it's that DeSantis is underwater,” the statement reads.

But for parents and medical professionals, the policy debate over how to most effectively protect children from COVID-19 has nothing to do with scoring political points. Dr. Lisa Gwynn, a pediatrician in Florida, says it’s ultimately about ensuring everyone is safe. “And the only way to do that? The message is simple: Everyone needs to have a mask on in the classroom. And if they can get immunized, get immunized. And to keep their distance and wash their hands.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.