SALT LAKE CITY — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate, slammed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated mask guidelines and vowed to fight possible future federal restrictions in a speech Wednesday to conservative lawmakers.
"Did you not get the CDC's memo?" the Republican governor of Florida jokingly asked about 1,500 legislators from around the country gathered in a Salt Lake City hotel ballroom for the American Legislative Exchange Council conference. The three-day, pro-federalism, pro-limited government event includes workshops for lawmakers on dozens of national, state and local issues.
Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should go back to wearing masks in public indoor settings, along with everyone at K-12 schools, to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant in virus hot spots, according to recommendations the CDC released Tuesday.
DeSantis, who has been touted as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, said it could be a sign of things to come from the Biden administration.
"I think it's very important that we say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates," he said to a cheering crowd.
While in Utah, DeSantis was scheduled to have lunch with GOP Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson at the Davis County home of Scott and Karen Keller, who have held fundraisers for Republican candidates in the past.
A Republican firebrand who relishes partisan fights, DeSantis said Americans should be free to choose how they take care of themselves, and not be consigned to live in a "Faucian dystopia" governed by the whims of bureaucrats who care little for freedom and happiness.
DeSantis has been at the center of Republican-led fights against pandemic lockdowns, racial justice protests and expanded ballot access.
I think it's very important that we say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates.
–Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
For some Republicans who grew weary of the incessant turmoil of Donald Trump's four years in the White House, DeSantis offers the promise of a presidential candidate who shares many of the former president's views but is less incendiary, Reuters reported, citing interviews with more than a dozen GOP voters, party officials and strategists.
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said DeSantis is "obviously" someone who could run for president, "and I think he may be. It sounded today like he was."
DeSantis comes across as a more polished version of Trump, and would be an early frontrunner if Trump decides not to run.
Adams said Trump's economic, social and other policies were "absolutely spot on" but the "delivery sometimes was a little difficult."
"I think we're seeing Gov. DeSantis deliver in a way that I think people actually like. You saw the response today and it was overwhelming," said Adams, who was elected president of ALEC this year.
Donald Trump Jr. and DeSantis top a poll provided first to Axios this month gauging the popularity of seven key Republicans. Trump Jr.'s favorability among GOP voters was plus 55, while DeSantis scored plus 54, according to the Fabrizio, Lee & Associates poll. None of the others scored higher than 24.
"Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump, Jr. are well-known and very well-liked by most Republicans, doing best among President Trump's biggest supporters," according to Tony Fabrizio, the pollster for both of Donald Trump's presidential campaigns
In his speech, DeSantis said he expects more battles ahead over federalism and freedom, adding Florida beat the Biden administration in court over efforts to shut down cruise lines and impose vaccine passports.
"In Florida, we'll continue to stand firm. We'll be holding the line. We will not back down, and I can tell you this, we've only begun to fight," he said.
Florida never imposed any coronavirus mitigation or mask mandates. The state's economy did not "miss a beat" and the unemployment has remained lower than the national average, he said.
"We're doing a lot of good stuff but we would not have been able to do that had we just decided to lock down the state indefinitely, throw hundreds of thousands of people out of work and ruin businesses up and down the state," he said.
As of Wednesday, Florida had recorded more than 2.5 million cases of COVID-19 and 38,840 deaths, fourth most in the country, according to worldometer. The state's 1,808 deaths per million residents ranks 25th nationally.
School districts were allowed to choose what was right for them, but there was no statistical difference in the outcome between schools that required masks and those that did not, DeSantis said.
"So here we are now and the CDC is saying every single person in the school needs to wear a mask all day, even if you're vaccinated, even if you recovered from COVID. By the way, you are immune if you recovered from COVID. The CDC won't admit that, but it's true," he said.
Some states, DeSantis said, went on a ''bizarre" pursuit to make the coronavirus disappear but it was never going to happen, and "they left a lot of destruction in their wake."