Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed have ravaged much of what Americans hold dear. And virtually every aspect of life has been at the mercy of our government leaders, as they navigated uncharted territory.
A governor’s single decision could mean the death of a loved one, the decimation of your life’s work, or being deprived of a final goodbye. The cost of a poor policy decision has never been more devastating.
In the face of all this, one governor has stood out.
Through exclusive interviews with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, his advisors, and others in his orbit, American Thought Leaders host Jan Jekielek brings us on a journey to discover who DeSantis really is, what motivates him, and how he charted a different course for Florida, while navigating censorship, misinformation, and pressures from legacy media.
What compelled Governor Ron DeSantis to re-open his state months before other governors? How did he balance saving lives from the virus and preserving constitutional liberties? And what does he believe is truly at stake?
News Soundbite: There is a reoccurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.
Jan Jekielek narration: The greatest public health controversy of the 21st century.
News Soundbite: As of today, all but a handful of states have issued stay at home orders in an effort to keep people safe.
Gov. DeSantis: We will never do any of these lockdowns again.
Mr. Jekielek narration: The story of one governor against COVID orthodoxy.
Jan Jekielek: What’s going on here?
Gov. Ron DeSantis: When push came to shove, they advocated policies that have not worked against the virus, but have been very, very destructive.
Mr. Jekielek narration: With opposition from all sides.
News Soundbite: People are going to die because of decisions that were made by Ron DeSantis in Florida.
News Soundbite: That decision was reckless.
News Soundbite: It is a big gamble.
Mr. Jekielek: What’s behind the punditry?
Gov. DeSantis: Google, YouTube has not been, throughout this pandemic, repositories of truth and scientific inquiry.
Mr. Jekielek: Through the eyes of those who challenged the status quo.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: There’s a lot of disagreement in the scientific community. Why not let the public know that?
News Soundbite: I know it’s difficult. This is inconvenient.
News Soundbite: This is not an inconvenience. This is a matter of life and death.
Gov. DeSantis: Every single fact that I discussed was edited out.
Gov. DeSantis in a speech: If you had been infected, then you [audience shouting].
Gov. DeSantis: I don’t mind people swinging at me. A leader is elected to lead.
News Soundbite: He looked at the science. He looked at the data.
Dr. Scott Atlas: This is off the rails. This is not the way civilization is supposed to be.
News Soundbite: He knows what he wants to do. He wants to do the right things.
Mary Daniel: This is bad. This isn’t working.
John Davis: But the decisions that he made are not just impulsive.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Behind this public persona, who is Ron DeSantis? What motivates him to go against the grain? In the midst of a public health crisis, DeSantis gave us special access.
Gov. DeSantis: Here’s the thing, they’re never going to admit they were wrong.
Mr. Jekielek: This is American Thought Leaders and I’m Jan Jekielek.
News Soundbite: Starting tomorrow, Florida will open vaccinations up to all adults; 16 and 17 year olds will also—
Mr. Jekielek narration: At the beginning of April this year, I took a trip to the state of Florida to meet with Governor Ron DeSantis. I wanted to see how Floridians are doing a year into the pandemic. My first stop was near his hometown in Jackson, and I was amazed to see so many people out and about.
Female: They can come get their vaccine shot.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Here at the Clay County Agricultural Fair, I learned that it was actually one of the first in the country to reopen at full capacity after having to close down last year.
Gov. DeSantis: You guys got a fried gator tail? Hey, how you doing, buddy? Hey, good to see you.
Mr. Jekielek narration: And for this reason, many people here are excited to see the governor, who has made this possible through his unique response to COVID. This was one of his many public appearances as Governor of Florida.
Male: You did a great job, governor.
Gov. DeSantis: Hey, thank you.
Mr. Jekielek narration: But I sensed that he was there for personal reasons as well.
Gov. DeSantis: How are you?
Mr. Jekielek narration: He was really enjoying spending time with his wife and kids at the end of the busy work day.
Gov. DeSantis: How you doing? What rides have you gone on so far?
Mr. Jekielek narration: Reveling in a great American tradition and some of the freedoms much of America is only now regaining.
Gov. DeSantis: Guys, watch. Watch me. I missed.
Gov. DeSantis: I grew up in Florida. We had great youth baseball. I was in a Little League World Series when I was 12. I got recruited by places like Princeton and Yale, and I had never been to New England in my life. Sports is meritocracy. I either hit a home run or I don’t. I strike out or I don’t.
Gov. DeSantis: Throw it, buddy. Throw it at the balloon.
Gov. DeSantis: I’ve always believed that the hard work pays off. If you outwork people, then good things happen.
News Soundbite: Batting fourth tonight for the Republicans, Ron DeSantis. Line drive to right field. He went to Yale, and he was captain of the varsity baseball team.
Gov. DeSantis: I started off with no money, no name ID, at a seven way primary, and I was able to win by 20 points. If you’re going to do it, just be conscious of what it takes to win.
Mr. Jekielek narration: DeSantis has an impressive life trajectory. He was a Yale graduate, went to Harvard Law School, served his country as a SEAL team legal advisor in Iraq, and became the youngest governor of Florida in more than a century. But I was yet to find out how he has shaped the lives of millions here. I met with him in the heart of Tallahassee, the state’s capital.
Gov. DeSantis: Hey, Ron DeSantis.
Mr. Jekielek: Very good to meet you.
Gov. DeSantis: Welcome to Florida.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you for inviting us.
Gov. DeSantis: Sorry we don’t have the warm weather.
Mr. Jekielek narration: I was, of course, aware that he kept Florida open through much of the pandemic, but who is he as a person behind his public persona, and what’s his governing philosophy? I had many questions coming in, but I quickly discovered he’s more of a man of action than of words.
Gov. DeSantis: Such a big state that if you’re not showing up in the community sometimes it’s hard for people to see what you’re doing.
Mr. Jekielek narration: During much of our time together we were on the move.
Gov. DeSantis: This town here is mostly state government, and then the universities. You have to get out of the Capitol. You have to get out to see the state. You look at a place like northern Florida, a little bit more Southern feel. You look at the Southwest Florida, very Midwest field. You look at Miami, very much a Latin American feel.
Man 1: I’ve been living here since 2000 and coming to be with my family in the United States.
Female automated voice: For your safety, please do not stand, walk, or sit.
Mr. Jekielek narration: To really get a taste of Florida’s distinct culture, I traveled from one city to the next, from countryside to downtown Miami.
Man 1: I love the Constitution of the United States. I think it makes opportunities for every person that works hard and does the right things to flourish.
Man 2: I escaped Cuba on the little boat and I stayed five days in the middle of the ocean. The American Coast Guard said, “Hey, give me your hand. I’ll save your life, and sink the boat in the middle of the ocean.”
I said, “No, you’re not going to sink the boat, for I have the collection in my boat.” The Cuban government destroyed the history. I discovered this, and I bought the books and I bought the antique paintings, and I recuperated the Cuban history. The Americans saved my life. America gave me the opportunity for freedom for life. And I’m very proud for America. I’m American.
If you don’t have freedom, you don’t have anything. But the freedom is more important in life.
Gov. DeSantis: I’m a knee jerk anti-communist. Instinctively, with my philosophy, I’m very, very much opposed to communist regimes.
Mr. Jekielek: My parents escaped from communist Poland in the 70s.
Mr. Jekielek narration: I’ve always been deeply moved by stories of people escaping communism and seeking freedom. For DeSantis, their tales also strike a cord.
Gov. DeSantis: People down in South Florida, when they see these regimes falling to a socialist dictator, that’s something that really does resonate with them in a way that I think you just wouldn’t see in other parts of the country.
Mr. Jekielek narration: It’s always struck me that for many who grew up in free societies, like America, tyranny can feel distant, like the tragic experiences of people in foreign lands, but not for DeSantis.
Gov. DeSantis: The founders really believed that the states would have the dominant role in most policy making, because that was what was impacting your everyday lives. They didn’t envision a federal government that was basically a nanny state that was getting involved in every aspect of life.
News Soundbite: DeSantis, boasting last month about what great shape Florida was in.
News Soundbite: A ticking time bomb for viral spread.
News Soundbite: People are going to die because of decisions that were made by Ron DeSantis in Florida.
News Soundbite: We are already seeing states like Louisiana and Florida start to have surges.
News Soundbite: That decision was reckless.
News Soundbite: It is a big gamble.
Reporter: Governor, what has gone wrong with the rollout of the vaccine?
Mr. Jekielek narration: Obviously Florida has faced media barrages nonstop. I watched it unfold every day in the newscasts, but only now did I begin to appreciate what he has had to face on a daily basis.
Man at press conference: Florida is one of the worst states in safety.
Gov. DeSantis: What does that mean?
Man: That we don’t have security with COVID
Gov. DeSantis: I think because Florida did it more rationally. We struck a much better balance. We did better on health outcomes than most of these lockdown states.
John Davis: I won’t call him a [inaudible] but the decisions that he made are not just impulsive.
Female: He knows what he wants to do. He wants to do the right things.
Mr. Jekielek narration: So what is the truth? DeSantis seems to receive a large amount of support from diverse communities, but he’s also been much criticized. Behind all the punditry, what’s the real story?
News Soundbite: We begin tonight with the growing concern as the toll from that deadly coronavirus now grows.
Mr. Jekielek narration: 2020, I could never have imagined how this year would unfold. In its early months, the Chinese regime imposed draconian lockdowns in Wuhan and across China.
News Soundbite: The city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, all trains and planes out of that city halted.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Then governments worldwide followed suit.
News Soundbite: As of today, all but a handful of states have issued stay at home orders in an effort to keep people safe.
Mr. Jekielek narration: After a month of strict lockdowns, in many places, there was still no end in sight, but in Florida, something quite different was underway.
News Soundbite: Governor Ron DeSantis announced Florida is ready to take the first steps.
News Soundbite: First step, phase one, into reopening on May 4th.
Gov. DeSantis: We will never do any of these lockdowns again.
Mr. Jekielek narration: What made DeSantis reverse course just one month after instituting a lockdown? What was going through his mind when he made this decision? To understand the full story of Florida’s unique response to COVID, I sat down with the governor at his office in Tallahassee.
Gov. DeSantis: The lockdowns were really a departure from what the typical scientific recommendations had been for pandemics. It was a panic driven approach.
Mr. Jekielek: If what DeSantis was saying was true, what fueled the panic?
Dr. Scott Atlas: It was appropriate, given that we didn’t know, to shut things down for what was originally a 15 day period, and there were reasons why the shutdown would have been useful.
Mr. Jekielek: Dr. Scott Atlas is a health public policy expert, and one of DeSantis’ key COVID advisors.
Dr. Atlas: The initial inclination was let’s prevent hospitals from being overcrowded. I think everyone bought into it for two reasons. Number one, fear. Fear is very powerful. And they bought into it because it was temporary. For 15 days, most people thought that would be a very small price to pay to get things under control and have some handle on how to proceed.
News Soundbite: Italy is locking down more regions as hospitals struggle to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr. Atlas: Well, what happened was, there was a gradual, but very dramatic, change in the goal.
News Soundbite: We really have a choice to make right now as a nation. Do we want to go the way of Italy and see our numbers increase rapidly, or do we want to go the way of South Korea and China, who aggressively leaned into mitigation measures?
Dr. Atlas: It shifted from stopping hospitals from being overcrowded into, we better stop all cases.
Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview: I would like to see a dramatic diminution of the personal interaction that we see in restaurants and in bars. Whatever it takes to do that, that’s what I’d like to see.
Dr. Atlas: I am a health policy expert. I’ve been doing this for 17 years. You don’t just look at the disease, you have to look at the consequence of what you do to mitigate or help reduce the impact of the disease.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Dr. Scott Atlas is not the only one who questioned the lockdown approach.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: The idea that the lockdown could stop the disease from spreading altogether in a place where it was already relatively widespread, that is the central most pernicious thing that came out of the Chinese experience of this. Huge numbers of Western governments copied that.
Mr. Jekielek narration: What was the alternative to lockdowns?
Dr. Bhattacharya: 35,000 signatories from US.
Mr. Jekielek: Medical practitioners, fascinating.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Dr. Jay Bhattacharya is a public health policy expert at Stanford University and coauthor of “The Great Barrington Declaration.” It argues for focused protection of those most at risk from COVID-19.
Dr. Bhattacharya: I don’t think there’s anything novel in it. This is effectively reflecting pandemic plans that we’ve made previously that have worked for a century in dealing with epidemics. The premise of it is just basically two scientific facts that I think everybody agrees with. One is that there’s this enormous age grading in COVID risk, so that the oldest are 1000 times more at risk than the youngest. And the second is the lockdown harms are enormous.
You put those two facts together, for the older population COVID is likely more dangerous than the lockdowns. For the younger populations, the lockdown is way more harmful than COVID. It’s not moral to expose them to the lockdowns.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Why would one argue it’s immoral to lockdown younger populations. Have we been conditioned to accept lockdowns as a perfectly reasonable response?
Dr. Atlas: There’s a big reason why lockdowns were never recommended in prior pandemics. It is not true that people have the same risk for hospitalization. I can give you an example. Early on, there were tens of thousands of cases on college campuses. This induced a panic in the media with no perspective given.
News Soundbite: Over 800 coronavirus cases have been reported at the University of Georgia.
News Soundbite: Universities across the country are reporting more than 25,000 positive cases of COVID-19.
Dr. Atlas: Of the first 50 some thousand cases, there were zero hospitalizations on college campuses. Not a small number—zero. Yet the news story kept pounding college campus breakouts: oh my God. And people started closing college campuses.
News Soundbite: A spike in on-campus coronavirus cases is forcing the New York State University to shutdown.
News Soundbite: Shutdown undergraduate classrooms after detecting several COVID clusters among students.
Dr. Atlas: We have people highlighting exceptions instead of understanding that these exceptions are simply that, exceptions. And those simple, rational, logical assessments were thrown out the window.
Dr. Bhattacharya: It’s a failure of public health messaging. We created this sense that there’s this equal panic, and as a result we miscommunicated the risk to the population that actually is most vulnerable and the least vulnerable.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re telling me that actually the cost of lockdowns are bad across the board?
Dr. Atlas: That policy failed to save the elderly. They were destroyed. They were killed by the lack of enough prioritization, enough resources.
Mr. Jekielek narration: This shifted my thinking in a very disturbing way. We were told locking down was critical to saving lives, but it actually led to public health resources being misallocated? It’s a powerful critique, but where’s the data to reflect it?
Dr. Atlas: We saw, even in March, April, May, the lockdown policies were failing to protect the high-risk people. The nursing home deaths made up 40-50 percent of all deaths.
News Soundbite: Vast majority of Minnesota’s COVID-19 deaths are cases associated with long-term care facilities.
Dr. Atlas: We know all the cases came in from the staff in nursing homes, for instance, yet the recommendation was one test per week of the staff. That’s not exactly prioritizing testing. You should be testing three days a week, five days a week, every single person who walks into a nursing home.
Gov. DeSantis: Now in hindsight, the 15 days to slow the spread, and the 30, it didn’t work. I think it’s been a huge, huge mistake in terms of policy. We shouldn’t have gone down that road because it’s done a lot of damage to many parts of our country.
Gov. DeSantis: This current crisis has impacted, in one way or another, all 21 and a half million Floridians in life-changing ways. … What is it actually curing? Has it actually stopped the spread in any meaningful way? … The international evidence and the American evidence is clear.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Was the decision to lift lockdowns quickly a good idea? Instead of extreme restrictions, what major steps did DeSantis take to address the pandemic?
Female: Governor was very measured about it.
News Soundbite: Where we are now, schools are going to remain on distance learning.
Gov. DeSantis: We’re now doing mass testing of all the long-term care staff.
Female: He looked at the science, he looked at the data.
Gov. DeSantis: If a COVID positive patient would be put into a nursing home, it then spreads and it makes it very difficult, so we’ve prohibited practice from the beginning.
Dr. Atlas: Governor DeSantis would start off by saying, “this is what I think is going on, tell me if I’m right.” And he would go through, in amazing detail, the data on both a state level, as well as national and international.
Gov. DeSantis: We talked about age-specific strategies.
Dr. Atlas: This is somebody who was totally immersed in the detail of what was going on.
Gov. DeSantis: We broke it down by age, which I think you’ve all said is very important to do.
Dr. Atlas: Of course, you don’t have to be a medical scientist to understand the data, you just have to be a critical thinker.
Gov. DeSantis: Just flipped it to get a survival rate. So age zero to 19, CDCs best estimate is now 99.997% survival rate. Age 70+ has 94.6% survival rate. Really dramatic differences.
Dr. Atlas: He was very, very concerned, from the first time I spoke with him, about both the virus harms and the harms of the lockdowns.
Gov. DeSantis: We’ve gone through and tested over 200,000 staffers in the last two weeks. We’re going to be doing that every two weeks.
Dr. Bhattacharya: When I first had a conversation with him, it was sometime in mid September. He called me up out of the blue; we had a two hour conversation. I don’t think I told him about a paper that he hadn’t already seen. I was taken aback. Frankly, he’s more knowledgeable than many of my Stanford colleagues about COVID science, or the epidemiology of COVID, anyways.
Gov. DeSantis in a conference: Can you talk a little bit about what your research at Stanford showed?
Dr. Bhattacharya in a conference: I worked on several … studies to estimate the number of people in the population that had been exposed or infected. Just checking for active cases provides an underestimate.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya: He’s showing the public what his advisors are telling him, in public, so that everyone can decide whether he did a good or bad job.
Gov. DeSantis in a conference: We wanted to solicit feedback from people who do this about what would you be thinking? How do you do it in a way that that reduces, that makes the risk small?
Gov. DeSantis: I have a big state, diverse, there were certain areas that view this a little differently than others. There was more interest in doing restrictions in, say, Southern Florida than in the panhandle. So rather than me apply Southern Florida policy statewide, I was like, okay, let’s let them develop what they think makes sense. But then as we got into it, after a couple months we had the data.
News Soundbite: For starters, Florida currently has five times fewer COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 than New York.
News Soundbite: The death rate in Florida is about three per 100,000. In New York state it’s 27.5 per 100,00. So at nine times worse.
News Soundbite: In New York, according to records obtained by the Associated Press, more than the 9000 recovering coronavirus patients were released from hospitals and sent back to nursing homes.
Gov. DeSantis on Fox News: You’re focusing those efforts where the threat really exists, which is in our senior population. So with the nursing homes, we restricted visitation and we prevented hospitals from discharging COVID positive patients back into nursing homes. That’s a tinderbox if you let that happen.
Gov. DeSantis in a conference: If the folks, particularly in the nursing homes, if other folks take the basic precautions that we preach, we would be able to get through it, minimizing the harm to society.
Mr. Jekielek narration: DeSantis focused on protecting the elderly and the most vulnerable, but some of the policies still had unintended consequences.
Mary Daniel: This is the family. This is one of my absolute favorite pictures of Steve. This is at the blues festival.
Mr. Jekielek narration: I met Mary Daniel at her home in Jacksonville. She had been appointed to DeSantis’ long-term care task force last September, and how she ended up there was an incredibly touching story.
Mrs. Daniel: This is a really, really cool picture to me, just because it just represents us before we knew what was coming. My husband Steve was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years ago at the age of 59. The last eight years have been life changing for us. Two years ago, I made the most difficult decision that I’ve ever had to make and that was to place him in a memory care center.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Before the pandemic hit, Mary would visit him every day until lockdowns suddenly turned her life upside down.
Mrs. Daniel: I went to see him on March the 11th, and they called me on March 12th and said, “You can’t come back.” I called the Executive Director of the facility and said, “This isn’t going to work for me. Can I get a job? Can I volunteer?” And they said, “Let’s wait and see.”
But the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months. He would kiss the iPad, because he didn’t understand where was I and how that worked. I knew that the isolation was going to hurt him. With dementia patients, Alzheimer’s patients, specifically the contact, the human contact, me being with him, was the most important part.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Mary told me that after months of fighting for a better solution, she was offered a position as a dishwasher in her husband’s long-term care facility.
Mrs. Daniel: After 114 days and a five-hour shift of dishwashing, I went to his room and his back was to me when I walked in the door. My fear was that I was not going to get back in time. That I was going to miss that window of opportunity where he knew me and knew our love and knew what our relationship was. And when he heard the door open, he turned around and the first thing he said was, “Mary.”
Female on the phone: Hi, Mary?
Mrs. Daniel: Yes.
Female on the phone: Steve is fine. I’m just giving you a call to let you know that we’ve been attempting throughout the day to give him a shower today, but he’s been refusing.
Mrs. Daniel: He won’t take a shower. Not surprising. I was back with him washing dishes, but I was only allowed to go in two days a week, and as grateful as I was for that, why was I able to go in as a dishwasher and not as a wife?
Mr. Jekielek: Presumably, what you’re advocating for is saying there’s a risk in isolation.
Mrs. Daniel: If you’ve been with an Alzheimer’s patient or a dementia patient, you know what touch does. Those are things that his wife knows how to do that the staff doesn’t know how to do. If they don’t have someone to interact with them, without the mind engaged, the mind dies, especially for someone who has a dying brain anyway, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing happen. That is what you’re seeing on death certificates now.
I started reaching out to Governor DeSantis. I tagged him on Facebook and tagged him on Twitter. I just really, really felt that he needed to hear from somebody to say, “This is bad. This isn’t working. [My husband] needs me.” And the governor listened to that.
Gov. DeSantis in a conference: They have loved ones who are in the last stage of their life. They’re not demanding a medical miracle. They’re not having unrealistic expectations. They just would like to be able to say goodbye or to hug somebody. So it was—
Mrs. Daniel: He got choked up. It seemed like minutes. It was probably only a matter of 10 seconds.
Gov. DeSantis: I think it’s difficult to think that some of our actions may have prevented—do you want to?
Mrs. Daniel: I think right then there’s no question in my mind that he meant it. I was sitting right next to him when he said it, when he was struggling to get his words out.
Mrs. Daniel in a conference:Today, it has been 175 days. And I am absolutely thrilled. I’m going to cry myself. This is going to be one of those days, I can promise you, when that first hug and that first conversation and rubbing their back and holding their hand, will take away the pain that we’ve all been suffering for these last 175 days.
Mr. Jekielek: Mary was able to reunite with her husband, but some have not been so lucky. Long-term isolation can be devastating.
Elderly lady: My baby, she’s my baby.
Careworker: I know, but we have to do social distance.
Dr. Bhattacharya in a conference: The idea of the lockdown is incredibly beguiling. If you just stay apart far enough, like rats in cages, we won’t spread the disease. But humans are not like that.
Dr. Atlas in a conference: It’s clear, for people who care about the data, it’s not just that they failed to stop the infection. The lockdowns actually killed people.
Dr. Atlas: The harms of the lockdowns means absent medical care.
Mr. Jekielek: At his home, Atlas showed me a CDC report that illustrated what he meant.
Dr. Scott Atlas: The 650,000 people in the United States that get chemotherapy, almost half skipped their chemotherapy. Forty percent of people with an acute stroke were too afraid to call an ambulance. Thirty to fifty percent of heart attack patients were not coming in. Eighty-five percent of live organ transplants did not get done during the two months of the lockdown.
Mr. Jekielek: These changes in human behavior are staggering.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Excess deaths means, relative to the number of deaths you saw and based on the age of the population in the previous years, how many deaths have you had this year? So the difference between what you expected and what you got is excess deaths.
Every aspect of human health that can possibly be hurt has been hurt by this. Humans are born to live in society with one another. It’s not a normal thing to cut down our interactions. You had something on the order of one in four young adults in the US, in June of this past year, who reported serious thoughts of suicide. This was according to a study by the CDC.
The kind of panic and fear that’s been induced in the population, we’ll continue to have. Once you ring that bell a panic and fear, it’s very difficult to undo.
Mr. Jekielek narration: What have fear and panic done to the younger generations of our time?
Dr. Scott Atlas: Fifty percent of people 18 to 24, fearful of any social interaction. Compared to the people that are older, only 31 percent. Almost double.
Mr. Jekielek: They’re not even watching mainstream media, so this is mostly social media driven.
Dr. Scott Atlas: Twitter, social media, yeah. We have been uniquely willing to sacrifice our children out of fear for adults, when we know that children have no significant risk. You had 300,000 plus cases of child abuse were not noticed, because they were not going to school and schools are the number one agency where child abuse is noticed. This is an enormous tragedy.
I would wake up to thousands of emails per week for months from people literally pleading with me to keep speaking out against the lockdowns, because their lives were being destroyed.
One day in October, I’ll never forget the afternoon, I got an email from someone who said, “Dear Dr. Atlas, thank you for everything that you’ve been saying. I’m writing you today because my husband killed himself, and I’m begging you to keep going.” And then two hours later, I had an email from a mother who said, “I’m writing you because my daughter tried to kill herself in a very serious way, and we’re trying to give her a reason to live.”
Mr. Jekielek: Everything you’re saying seems so absolutely contrary to what most states are doing right now. If this information is so available, and this analysis is so relatively simple to actually perform, what’s going on here?
Dr. Atlas: People are not willing to pay attention to the literature on the lockdowns. I know the lockdowns are “inconvenient.” This is not inconvenience. This is a matter of life and death. The burden of proof is on the states that did the lockdown. So when you look at the data, Florida did the best on age-adjusted deaths for people 65 and older, beat more than half the states on total number of deaths from COVID.
Dr. Bhattacharya: The unemployment rate is, I think, two or three times higher in California than in Florida. There’s a class of people that have really enjoyed the isolation, whereas the working class, who’s jobs can’t just be replaced by Zoom, have suffered. In Florida, richer places have not done better than other places. Everyone’s just done better overall.
Woman: I, for one, don’t understand when you now have evidence in at least one state that it can be done and done safely, why other leaders in other states don’t follow suit, even after we have seen the results of the approach that he has taken? Yes, the fear-mongering is still out there.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Everyone I interviewed told me something similar. The hostility they have faced from the media is unprecedented.
Gov. DeSantis: They would literally put coffins in front of our Department of Education. These union thugs would come and try to break up some of my press conferences.
Gov. DeSantis in a conference: If you had been infected then you [audience shouting].
Gov. DeSantis: The media was saying it was dangerous for kids. I mean, they were, they were scaring a lot of parents. We’re not going to force the parents if they want to do virtual, fine, but we’ve got to open the schools.
Some of the other ones, it was like 50 percent would go back, but then you’d have more and more as the weeks went on and people saw that it was safe.
News Soundbite: Today, during a roundtable discussion with public health experts he criticized the tech platform for pulling a COVID-19 roundtable discussion.
Gov. DeSantis: Google, YouTube has not been throughout this pandemic repositories of truth and scientific inquiry, but instead have acted as enforcers of a narrative in service of the ruling elite.
Dr. Atlas: Where is the line between what we are and what we used to think of was abhorrent, like the USSR or communist China? People are willing to say okay to that. The American spirit, the independent American, where are these people?
Mr. Jekielek narration: DeSantis wasn’t the only one censored, media attacks have extended to basically any scientist who diverges from COVID orthodoxy. When I visited Dr. Atlas, it quickly became clear that security was a big concern.
Dr. Atlas: There’s a serious price to pay for people that are willing to step forward and help this country now. I received a huge amount of not just hate mail, but serious, legitimate death threats. So that over the Christmas week I had to have a police car parked at the base of my driveway full time, 24/7. I had to install security equipment in my home. Thousands of dollars. I had to put police patrolling my street, 24/7 for months. This is off the rails. This is not the way civilization is supposed to be.
Dr. Bhattacharya: You end up with a population that does not understand truly what the risks are. They’ve got the sense that there is a consensus about COVID policy, a consensus about elements of COVID science, where this is a novel disease. There’s a lot of disagreement in the scientific community. Why not let the public know that, instead of pretending that one side is right and the other side is dangerous?
The media in a democracy has responsibilities to tell the truth. Let the public hear them, because it serves the public better to understand there is a scientific debate. The censorship of science is essentially you may as well not do science at all. It’s absolutely shocking.
Gov. DeSantis: When people were raising questions about the lockdowns early on, big tech was censoring them. I think it’s really benefited the legacy corporate media tremendously to have big tech propping them up. When they have such a quick trigger finger to try to censor, to me that’s a telltale sign that they’re just trying to enforce an orthodoxy. It’s not about the truth. It’s not about the facts.
Dr. Atlas: Number one, it made people very nervous in this country. I mean, you can imagine if they think somebody is out there trying to say, don’t wear a mask, and by the way, herd immunity, let it go. Let the infection spread. I never said that. My advice was, increase the protection of people who are at risk, but don’t lockdown the healthy people. When you say don’t lockdown, that is not synonymous with saying let it rip.
The harms in this country were exposed beyond what anyone would have anticipated and they will last for decades. We will have a massive price to pay for what was done in the United States.
Dr. Bhattacharya: Ninety plus percent of [virus] stories in U.S. settings are bad news. Whereas in the rest of the world, the press is much more neutral.
Mr. Jekielek: I hadn’t thought about that way.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Reflecting on all these stark realities laid out before me, I wondered, how did we get here?
Dr. Bhattacharya: I still don’t understand how Western governments went from these commitments to basic liberties to a situation where it’s completely normalized to adopt these kinds of gross violations of human rights. If you’d asked me in February of 2020, would it be possible to enact them in the United States? I would’ve said it was impossible.
Dr. Atlas: I care more about our country because I’m an American. I had the guts to go in and help the country despite knowing that people would try to destroy me. The only motivation I ever had was to help this country. There’s something wrong with you if you’re going to say no to that. But now I know the price.
And now I have young people on Stanford University campus asking me, would I do it again, asking me if they should step forward, asking me if they should devote their time to public policy in the public eye, and I think that’s a serious question. I have a hard time answering yes to that.
Gov. DeSantis: You have a situation where if you’re in this field, the pandemic, that’s something that you prepare for and you’re ready for, and a lot of these people muffed it. When push came to shove, they advocated policies that have not worked against the virus, but have been very, very destructive. But here’s the thing, they’re never going to admit they were wrong.
Gov. DeSantis: We’re in Titusville, so this is more Northern Brevard County.
Mr. Jekielek narration: It was high noon when DeSantis took me to Titusville to see how the pandemic had altered life in this coastal city. On our way, DeSantis told me how even the brief lockdown had been very damaging, putting life investments on the line and family businesses in limbo.
Gov. DeSantis: One of the things that certainly we’ve not escaped, or anyone, now. If you have a hard lockdown, there’s just a fear factor that was in society and it’s still not gone. I think in Florida, it’s better. People have come to terms: okay, this is something that’s here, but we’re not going to let it dominate our lives.
Mr. Jekielek narration: I know quite a few people who are spending more time in Florida since the pandemic began, so I was curious how DeSantis would understand what’s going on.
Gov. DeSantis: Well, actually I know we had a lot of people just moving from California. They want to live in a normal state. They want to be able to make their own decisions.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Driving down the streets of Titusville along a 72 mile stretch of Florida’s pristine coastline, I’m amazed at how Florida was able to see a robust comeback of its local economy much earlier than many other states.
Gov. DeSantis: Hey, how are you doing good? It’s good to see you. How you doing?
Woman: Very good. How are you?
Mr. Jekielek: It turned out that besides loosening restrictions step-by-step through much of last year, DeSantis also made it part of his routine to visit small businesses to help keep their doors open and chart what many saw as a better course through a time of crisis.
Gov. DeSantis: How are you?
Man: Thank you. You’re doing a fantastic job.
Gov. DeSantis: Thank you. All right. Thank you. Thank you. I have a tough time paying for a meal in Florida. Is that what that is? You just eat the whole thing?
Gov. DeSantis: There’s new hotels that are opening in Florida. There are new restaurants that are opening all the time in Florida. Each person with those jobs, that is a huge impact on their livelihoods, on their families. I don’t think you’re going to find too many people that wish we had kicked hundreds of thousands of people out of work.
Mr. Jekielek: At the restaurant, I met Sheriff Wayne Ivey. He took me to the local beach, known for staying open last year.
Sheriff Wayne Ivey: If I was in a short sleeve shirt today, I’d show you that on my left arm is tattooed the United States Constitution.
Mr. Jekielek: This was the only beach that was kept open, even during the initial lockdown. Governor DeSantis went to Ivey to see how he did it safely.
Sheriff Ivey: They were looking at how did we do not closing our beaches. We’re one of the only counties in the state that didn’t close our beaches. And so they were looking at that model. How did that work?
Mr. Jekielek: How did it work?
Sheriff Wayne Ivey: It worked beautifully. One of the things that the doctors were telling us is sunshine, heat, fresh air, exercise, all of those things were components to help fight the COVID virus. Why would we want to close this? People are out here. They’re exercising. They’re swimming. Why would we shut that down?
Mr. Jekielek: How did he make sure people at the beach stayed safe?
Sheriff Ivey: If we saw a big collection of people, we were, again, education and awareness: please back up, get your spacing, practice the CDC guidelines. But what we didn’t do was trample on our citizens rights.
News Soundbite: Our country has been through a lot, but all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again.
Sheriff Ivey: In the middle of COVID we returned astronauts to space right here in our backyard.
Female: Three, two, one, zero. Ignition. Liftoff.
Sheriff Ivey: If you think back in time of history, how many millions of people have stood right where you and I are standing on this beach and watched history be made as we launched our rockets and our astronauts into space. You think about that piece of history right here. Who am I to tell them they can’t come here and watch this piece of history? I think Governor DeSantis was a big part of that. He has tried to make sure that we’ve combated this to the degree we can without causing another problem.
News Soundbite: The fight with Florida is on, and today Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis got a special tour of the Everglades.
Mr. Jekielek narration: What motivates DeSantis as a governor? I took a detour from COVID politics to some of the governor’s other work.
Ron Bergeron: If you can send someone to the moon in a rocket ship, we ought to be able to save our planet.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Here, I met with Alligator Ron Bergeron, who was appointed by DeSantis to the board of the South Florida Water Management District. He’s a successful businessman, a philanthropist, and a Glades man at heart.
Mr. Bergeron: Welcome to my home in the beautiful Everglades.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re so close to civilization, but we’re actually so far.
Mr. Bergeron: That’s true. The everglades replenishes the aquifer, which is our drinking water. Even if you’re not a conservationist or an environmentalist, it still will affect all of us.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the natural wonders of the world, Florida’s Everglades are stunning. Bergeron took me to one of his properties, a beautiful cabin at the heart of this wetland.
Mr. Bergeron: The governor came into my office about a year before the election, introduced himself, and wanted to learn about the Everglades. I’ve never had anyone come in my office so many times that I needed a traffic light.
Mr. Jekielek: Bergeron told me, over the course of those visits, he and DeSantis would discuss what it would take to save Florida’s natural resources.
Gov. DeSantis: Dealing with the toxic discharges and the algae that have been coming out of Lake Okeechobee, to me, is something that we’ve got to do right away. The reservoir-
Reporter: Is that a priority for you?
Gov. DeSantis: Absolutely. Big priority.
Mr. Jekielek: It was interesting to see how DeSantis strikes a somewhat different tone than what people might normally expect from conservative leaders.
Gov. DeSantis: I definitely believe that our activity affects the environment. I mean, you would be a fool not to want to address that. I’m not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftist. I’m just not. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. It’s just a different analysis.
Reporter: Tell us what you think of climate change.
Gov. DeSantis: All that’s going to be true. What are you telling us to do? The answer is basically raise taxes.
News Soundbite: Governor DeSantis held a news conference this morning to announce a massive land buyout that will prevent a plan to drill for oil in the wetlands.
Gov. DeSantis: Here’s the thing, Florida’s water quality and our environment are central to our way of life and our economic future. I mean, if we lose that, Florida is not going to be Florida anymore.
Mr. Jekielek narration: For the two of them, what makes Florida so special?
Mr. Bergeron at an event: I remember being here about 72 years ago, which I’m telling my age, as a little boy that got in an airboat with his grandfather.
Mr. Jekielek: I do believe you’ve been living the American dream here.
Mr. Bergeron: I’ve definitely lived the American dream. We come from a below average family. Rags to riches. I’ve grown with Florida’s growth. Through that, all the success as a businessman, what made me really happy is my culture never changed. I’ve always made sure that the areas that my companies grew was always outside of the true natural areas for us to have the right balance between growth, the economy, and our quality of life.
That’s what’s great about America, is the American dream is still alive. It has a lot to do with what Florida really stands for and why people come here.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Back in the city, seeing what common sense, traditional values, and endeavoring to live the American dream have made possible for the people of Florida, even during this pandemic, I’m still astounded by how the media has spun the narrative about Florida.
Gov. DeSantis: This is bad for our country. Every single fact that I discussed was edited out.
John Davis: I guess I can’t say it any plainer than he has been drug through the mud.
News Soundbite: Tonight, Florida and Palm Beach County are in the spotlight after a national program reported on the inequities regarding the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
News Soundbite: Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign, and then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach.
Gov. DeSantis: First of all, what you’re saying is wrong.
News Soundbite: Democratic mayor of Palm Beach County slamming the 60 Minutes report, saying, “The reporting was intentionally false.”
Gov. DeSantis: The fact that Publix wasn’t even the first pharmacy to get it, CVS and Walgreens had had it. The fact that we had had it, obviously, in hospitals and these other places.
Dr. Atlas: He doesn’t back down from a challenge.
Mr. Jekielek: John Davis, an agency head in DeSantis’ administration, happened to tell me some of what 60 Minutes had left out of their story.
John Davis: In February, once realizing that there was a gap, within 24 hours we informed the governor and immediately the governor said, “Make it happen.” And now Pahokee and that area has a permanent site that was established and set up there during February. And the governor has expanded that to make sure that we do not leave any stones unturned.
Mr. Jekielek narration: While DeSantis’ policies have been, in many ways, vindicated, he faced and continues to face, enormous pressure for his decisions. What compelled him to do what he did?
Mr. Jekielek: I’m curious about your philosophy behind your choices, because there was a heck of a lot of pressure over the last year to do something very different from what you did.
Gov. DeSantis: I don’t mind people swinging at me. A leader is elected to lead. I’d rather them beat up on me, then have someone lose their job. I’d rather have them beat up on me then have kids locked out of school. So I’m totally willing to take whatever heat comes our way, because we’re doing the right thing.
Gov. DeSantis at a conference: Protect people’s civil liberties and constitutional and individual rights. The government needs to protect health, but we should not go beyond what is necessary to do that.
Dr. Atlas: As a governor ruling, it’s not necessarily using laws and arresting people and mandates, it’s somewhat trusting people. He treats people as they should be treated in a free society. And he does it, lastly, I would add here, without fear.
Gov. DeSantis at a conference: With that, we’ll make it official. It’s time to step up and ensure that we, the people, especially our everyday Floridians, are guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley power grab. Floridians who are deplatformed will be able to sue big tech companies for violating this law.
Gov. DeSantis: I do worry about the state of discourse in the country.
Gov. DeSantis at a conference: When they try to silence, silence criticism of lockdown, silence people raising questions about the origin of the virus, that shows you that they don’t have confidence that their side would ultimately prevail.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Amidst all this, what drives DeSantis to keep going?
Gov. DeSantis: Think about the people that founded this country. They would have been beheaded if they had not succeeded. They risked everything in order to establish a Constitutional Republic. Think about all the people that have worn the uniform and have gone to defend us against Nazism, against communism. You will be attacked if you try to upset the narrative.
Dr. Atlas: The reality is, there is a massive split in this country. I had received emails from all over the country from experts saying, “Scott, you’re right. Keep talking. I’m afraid. I’m afraid for my family. I’m afraid for my job.” This is something that we have to look in the mirror as a country and decide, is this what we want?
Mr. Jekielek narration: For a long time America has been a beacon of freedom, a place where living one’s conscience was enshrined. But is that now at stake?
Man 3: We lost our country one time. I didn’t want to lose my country the second time.
Man 4: I remember 20 years ago when I came from Cuba, trying to find liberty.
Mr. Jekielek narration: It was interesting to see DeSantis specifically invited Cuban and Venezuelan exiles to speak.
Man 4: I was born in Venezuela. I come to warn you, more than 20 years ago, forever Venezuela was number one country in Latin America. If you have long fingers, put in the ground, and there would be a geyser of oil. The God-given gift speech: defend it because there is not one place in history, any country, that has changed its constitution, that has something or a nice story to tell.
Gov. DeSantis: These are really profound questions about ultimately who governs.
Man 4: Today, everybody in the United States see Florida as a new way to go.
Man 5: You know what, it establishes the love that you have for this country, and it’s what you do for this country. This is the moment. Florida, let’s save this country.
Mr. Jekielek narration: Looking back on my journey to Florida, being there was like a breath of fresh air. Thanks so much.
Shop owner: I opened a coffee shop in the Orange Park Mall in the middle of COVID.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re telling me that under coronavirus, you actually started a brick and mortar version of this business.
Shop owner: Yes, sir.
Mr. Jekielek narration: It wasn’t just the open businesses, it was the sense of freedom and dignity, of holding true to your values regardless of the circumstances.
Gov. DeSantis: I want our country to be true to the key principles that make us unique as a country.
Woman: I wouldn’t have my own family out here if I didn’t think that it was a safe place for people to be.
Gov. DeSantis: Florida is a place, if you believe in a free state, we’re the place people are looking to for leadership.
Mr. Jekielek narration: At a time when fear dominated America and saw its people accept what was previously unimaginable, it was refreshing to experience a state charting its own course. But where is America headed now, and where will the rest of DeSantis’ story, still unwritten, ultimately take him?
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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