Ron DeSantis and Mike Lee open CPAC with speeches targeting lockdown ‘tyranny’ as death toll tops 30,000 in host state

Two of the Republican Party’s leading figures kicked off the annual CPAC conference by railing against the anti-coronavirus measures imposed across the country – with Florida governor Ron DeSantis insisting that “the lockdown states got it wrong”.

Opening the gathering’s first day in Orlando, Mr DeSantis began his speech in a triumphant mood: “For those of you who aren’t from Florida, welcome to our oasis of freedom!”

Mr DeSantis contrasted his state with “a country that’s suffering under the yoke of oppressive lockdowns”, lamenting that in other states he sees “schools closed, businesses shuttered, and lives destroyed.

“And while so many governors over the last year have kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up.”

Boasting that in his state, schools and businesses are now open, Mr DeSantis drew a lien in the sand: “Florida got it right, and the lockdown states got it wrong!”

Florida’s coronavirus story is in fact more complicated than this. While the state’s authorities have used a fairly light touch in recent months, they were forced to impose lockdown measures in the summer of last year when cases spiked. And while Florida does have lower per capita rates of Covid-19 deaths and hospitalisations than many states which locked down hard, it also compares favourably to many states that didn’t – and it is currently seeing more cases and hospitalisation per million than Democratic-run California, where restrictions have been much tougher. At 142 deaths per million as of 26 February, the state is in the middle of the pack nationally speaking.

Mr DeSantis was followed by Utah Senator Mike Lee, who delivered a speech bluntly stating that “faith in government” would lead the US down the road to tyrannical rule akin to that suffered under the 18th century British crown.

Instead of government, Mr Lee said, America would be at its most free when its citizens were allowed to assemble at “gatherings like this one, where the magic happens”.

Like Mr DeSants, Mr Lee springboarded from this theme into a broadside against coronavirus lockdown measures – including an upbeat rant at the expense of “sad, sad California”, whose people he said “are recalling their governor because they’ve had enough of these stringent closures!”

The effort to recall Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has indeed gathered steam in recent months, with organisers behind the effort claiming they have gathered the requisite number of signatures to trigger a vote. However, those signatures must first be validated before an election can be held.

Mr Newsom has faced criticism over a series of personal missteps during the pandemic, most of all an incident where he dined with a lobbyist indoors at an exclusive restaurant even as many Californians followed strict social distancing measures.

The state’s Democratic Party chair said earlier this year that the effort is being led by “right-wing conspiracy theorists, white nationalist anti-vaxxers, and groups who encourage violence on our democratic institutions”.

Mr DeSantis and Mr Lee spoke the morning after Joe Biden marked the news that 50 million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been administered since he entered office. That number brings his administration halfway to the goal of delivering 100 million doses in Mr Biden’s first 100 days – and there are more than 60 days still to go until the deadline.

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