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Miami Beach Mayor Says Florida Gov. DeSantis Is 'Exploiting' The Health Crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the latest coronavirus surge, Florida is in its own category. The state just had more than 28,000 new cases in one day, and Florida has more COVID patients in the hospital than anywhere else in the U.S. Despite this, Governor Ron DeSantis is doing everything he can to prevent schools and businesses from requiring masks or vaccinations. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber is a Democrat who has criticized the governor's response, and he joins us now. Welcome.

DAN GELBER: Glad to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Give us a snapshot of what's happening in your community right now.

GELBER: Well, I live in Miami-Dade County, which has been the hot spot in Florida, but now the entire state is a hot spot. We're not simply leading in hospitalizations and in cases, but we're leading in deaths also in the state. You know, and the governor is treating this like a political opportunity rather than a health care challenge.

SHAPIRO: And so tell us about those conversations you have with the governor and his staff, state officials in Tallahassee.

GELBER: It's interesting. You know, at the beginning of the pandemic, our city - because we're a hospitality destination, we really had to act pretty quickly. We have over 10 million people coming here every year. So I reached out to him very early, and he, frankly, was very helpful. He said, do what you need to do. I'll support it. And he did publicly, and I commend him publicly. It was exactly what you should have in a situation where people put aside their political differences and deal with the pressing health care challenges.

SHAPIRO: But what about now when you talk to the governor these days? I mean...

GELBER: He doesn't talk to me.

SHAPIRO: What are those conversations?

GELBER: He's not talking to me. He's not talking to, really, any local officials that I'm aware of. He is...

SHAPIRO: State health officials, even?

GELBER: Well, the local state health officials are helpful as they can be. But, of course, they're limited. I've been on phone calls with them where they say they can't give me a document because they're not allowed to or they can't give me advice because they're not allowed to. But the governor - what he's done, which I think is really almost sinister, is that he has taken this obvious health care challenge and decided to exploit it. So if you go to his website, he's got merchandise making fun of Fauci or making fun of mask usage at a time when we know following the CDC and wearing a mask will literally save lives because I think that's what he thinks is his political opportunity.

SHAPIRO: So just in terms of policy, you've said that you and other city officials are, quote, "trying to do everything we can to get around the governor's very wrongheaded desires." Tell us what that looks like. Give us a couple of examples of specific things you're doing.

GELBER: So, for instance, he outlawed mask mandates, by the way, which was immediately followed by a surge in the virus. So what we're trying to do now is we're trying to get our businesses to mandate that. We're obviously requiring them at city hall. We just put out a video with Gloria Estefan and DJ Khaled, two of our residents, asking people to wear masks and do things like that. We literally are trying to get people vaccinated by putting pop-up places in front of bars and things like that because we're not allowed to require vaccines as a condition of participation.

SHAPIRO: Yesterday I interviewed Republican Senator Rick Scott from your state. And when I asked him whether Florida officials should be doing more to fight this pandemic, here's part of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICK SCOTT: I don't believe that government should be doing all of these mandates. I think what the government should be doing is providing good information and letting businesses and let people make their choices.

SHAPIRO: How do you respond to that individual liberty argument?

GELBER: Well, first of all, the government is doing neither of those things right now. Our governor is literally making fun of mask usage when the good advice is to use it. But, of course, the individual liberty thing - it's a full absurd red herring. You know, we have stop signs. We don't allow secondhand smoke. I mean, the notion that we're a society that doesn't tell people to keep themselves and others safe is just silly. Wearing a mask is what literally stopped tens of thousands of people from dying in my state alone.

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about a slower-moving crisis in your state, which is climate change.

GELBER: Yup.

SHAPIRO: Miami Beach, your city, is on the frontlines of sea level rise. And your city depends on properties that are right up against the water. A U.N. report out yesterday says even if carbon emissions dropped to zero immediately, oceans will still rise for decades, and hurricanes and storm surges will get worse. And if emissions don't stop, the consequences will be catastrophic. So given that reality, how much longer do you think your city, Miami Beach, can continue to exist in its current form?

GELBER: Look. We are a barrier island built on porous limestone at sea level. We have a different lifestyle. And that all said, we also have a pretty substantial tax base. And we are able, unlike many other places, to address it. So we are involved in a very aggressive road raising program in our city. We've already raised four or five miles of roads. We are going from a gravitational system to our stormwater system to a pump system. We're going to put in about 80 pumps throughout the city. We've already...

SHAPIRO: You're saying we can keep fighting the ocean as long as we have to. As high as it gets, we'll just keep pushing it back.

GELBER: What I'm saying is there is an engineering solution to these things if you don't wait. It's - these are surmountable challenges.

SHAPIRO: Are they surmountable no matter how much sea level rises, though, or is there some point at which it's not anymore?

GELBER: I think they are surmountable for the next century. Now, by the way, that's not to diminish the fact that we should be taking care of emissions on the front end and the cause of this. But I know there are engineering solutions. We know because we've seen it. But you can't wait. And the problem and the challenge for a lot of government is that if you're an elected official - and I am - a lot of what you're doing now is going to have an impact for 10, 20 or 30 years. And it's hard to spend money. And people are going to wonder - all they did was pay for it, and it'll be another generation or two that will benefit from it. But I think that's going to require a lot of long-term thinking from people in elected office, which is not typically what we do well.

SHAPIRO: That is Dan Gelber, mayor of Miami Beach, Fla. Thank you for talking with us today.

GELBER: Sure. Thank you. Have a great day.

SHAPIRO: And we reached out to Governor DeSantis' office for comment and have not heard back.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "FANSHAWE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.