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Communications expert warns mixed messaging from Gov. Ron DeSantis could cost Florida coronavirus cases

"You see that often times in a crisis situation," communication expert says
Ron DeSantis.jpg
Posted at 12:30 AM, Jul 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-01 00:40:40-04

Mixed marks, that's what some say Florida's governor gets for his messaging during the coronavirus pandemic. Communications experts believe he has struggled to manage reopen expectations. It might even be slowing Florida's Rebound, they warn.

Assistant Professor Josh Scacco said Gov. Ron DeSantis has been fluctuating between realism and optimism recently. The University of South Florida political communications expert believes, at times, DeSantis has painted too rosy a picture of Florida's reopening — only to later rollback loosened restrictions.

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"You see that often times in a crisis situation that political leaders attempt to balance hope with the realities of where a particular situation is," said Scacco. "Where political leaders excel or not is on expectation setting."

An example happened two weeks ago when DeSantis defiantly said he had no plans to heighten protections, only to have his administration restrict alcohol consumption at bars 10 days later as cases of the virus surged in the state.

"Balancing that particular message— hope and optimism with the realities of where we are currently is something many political leaders — not just DeSantis— have struggled with at particular times," said Scacco. "One of the things we're talking about here is a months, or potentially even years-long slog through this particular moment."

Scacco said, amid a pandemic, this kind of thing can be dangerous — specifically citing masks.

Research suggests 80 percent need to wear masks in public to contain the spread of the virus. While DeSantis has consistently recommended use, he doesn't believe a state order is necessary. The governor is also often seen without a mask at press briefings.

"Statewide support for wearing masks is somewhere in the 75-80% range," said Scacco. "It's just on that cusp … By the governor modeling that type of behavior, it could potentially increase the number of individuals complying."

Mixed messaging also likely cost DeSantis favorability. University of North Florida polls showed a massive 72 percent approval rating last October. It was down to 51 percent by April. The numbers come after DeSantis issued a Safer at Home Order on April 1, one of the last governors to do so, following weeks of saying local control was a better choice.

Scacco said DeSantis has started better managing expectations more in recent news briefings. Scacco points to honesty before recent budget cuts when the governor described them as a "Red Wedding" of vetoes. But only time will tell if that holds in the coming months as Florida continues to try and recover from COVID-19.