Aug. 15, 2021 by David Silverberg
With the COVID-19 Delta variant rampaging through Florida and with urgent efforts to get the vulnerable vaccinated to halt the spread of the virus, “influencers” of all stripes and positions have taken on new importance, especially public figures and elected officials.
Nowhere is this truer than in Southwest Florida and the 19th Congressional District along the Florida Gulf coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island. Here, vaccination has become an acutely intense and impassioned political act. A vocal, hardcore anti-vaccination (anti-vaxx) constituency is demonstrating against vaccinations and especially fears vaccine mandates.
In all this Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) plays a particularly prominent role. He represents nearly 700,000 people in Congress and has special access to a media megaphone. What he says and does can sway many people in this community.
So is he an anti-vaxxer or a pro-vaxxer? It’s a question that should be easy to answer.
Well, let’s examine the context, the politics and the record first.
Donalds started off the summer very strongly and looked set to cruise through to Labor Day on top of the world.
There’s no denying that his second-quarter fundraising numbers were impressive: His political campaign took in $1.1 million for his re-election effort, an astounding sum for the otherwise sleepy beachfront district.
His staunchly far-right political positions were playing well with his white, conservative base in the district and gaining him national prominence with conservative elites, aiding his fundraising. The money came in from all over the country. If properly managed, some of it could be used to donate to other candidates, building his support in Congress.
He played the conservative martyr when the Congressional Black Caucus ignored his application to join. He had a greatly exploitable issue in opposing critical race theory, on which he had particular credibility. His adamant denunciations resonated with his base and his donors on the eve of a new school year. He stoked paranoid fear of liberal radicalism, driving donations and advancing the Republican agenda.
He was getting plenty of softball publicity in the right-wing media sphere and when he was critically scrutinized by traditional, mainstream media, he could discredit or dismiss the results. He had some useful pictures showing himself being blessed by Donald Trump, presumably making Trumpers happy.
He was at last showing concern about the district’s water issues, sending out letters to the Army Corps of Engineers regarding Lake Okeechobee releases and participating or hosting conferences on water management solutions. It was gaining him local environmental credibility, or at the very least, publicity.
His longstanding anti-masking efforts seemed justified as COVID receded and the pandemic appeared to be over. He had staunchly supported Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) opposition to masks, mandates or lockdowns and Florida was booming economically.
What was more, he could piggyback on DeSantis’ popularity. The governor’s polling numbers were very high among Republicans and might provide Donalds some nice coattails to ride in the next election.
Senate seats might also be opening up that Donalds could pursue. Then, who knows? Perhaps Donalds, currently age 42, could reach the presidency as the conservative Obama in 2028 or ’32 or ’36 or ’40—provided, of course, that the elections took place as scheduled.
A smooth and sunny summer stretched before him.
What could possibly go wrong?
From summer to bummer
Donalds won the 2020 Republican nomination for Congress in the 19th District after a strenuous nine-person primary that saw the candidates scrambling to out-Trump each other.
As they competed to be Trumpier than Trump, they aped the former president’s casual and dismissive approach to the COVID outbreak.
Donalds was particularly active in this regard. He opposed masking and took the time and made the effort to show up in person to oppose mask mandates whenever they arose. This included appearances in Cape Coral and before the Collier County Commission.
“You have no authority to mandate what people can put on their body. The fear people are having doesn’t justify it,” Donalds said when he spoke before the Cape Coral City Council on July 6, 2020. “As a council, you have the solemn duty to vote this down and get back to common sense.”
On July 14, when the Collier County Commission first debated a mask mandate, Donalds argued it would put “extensive burdens” on local law enforcement.
“How are you going to have them enforce such a mandate?” he asked commissioners. “Who are they going to decide to enforce it on and who are they not going to enforce it on? There are major issues with such an order.” The commission ultimately voted in a mask mandate.
He also argued against mask mandates when he debated Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai on Sept. 28.
Given all this, it was richly ironic that Donalds tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 16, 2020 when President Donald Trump came to Fort Myers.
Donalds quarantined at home for two weeks and seemed none the worse for wear when he emerged. In videos he made from his back yard his chief focus was on the different exercise workouts he was trying.
Presuming his personal immunity, Donalds continued taking an anti-mask position through his primary and general races, winning the congressional seat he now holds.
Once in office, Donalds continued to denounce mask mandates and COVID precautions and attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, for his warnings.
“When has the media or Dr. Fauci ever been right?” he asked in a tweet on June 2.
Unsurprisingly, he also praised DeSantis’ executive order banning mask mandates in schools.
“PARENTS must choose what is best for their child, NOT the federal government!” he tweeted on July 30, starting a petition to “tell the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] they have no right to mask our kids!” He also praised DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools, which he stated was “putting the power back into the hands of parents––but we must continue our fight!”
All the fulminations against masking went over well enough in July until the current COVID Delta variant spike could no longer be ignored. Not just Fauci but virtually the entire medical community, the mainstream media and the whole weight of the federal government starting with President Joe Biden began urging and pushing Americans to get vaccinated.
But fighting COVID precautions didn’t just curry favor with the base for Donalds, it was fundraising gold.
“Biden and the radical Left are coming for your freedom,” he wrote in a fundraising e-mail on Aug. 12, which warned that Biden might intervene against DeSantis’ mask mandate ban. “They’re trying to use the federal government to FORCE Anthony Fauci’s anti-scientific mandates and lockdowns on Florida and take away our ability to make our own decisions.”
Some politicians might have considered their previous anti-precautions positions a problem given the magnitude of the COVID threat. But Donalds decided to double down in opposing protections.
On July 27, he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo during a contentious interview: “You’re saying that everybody has to get vaccinated to protect everybody. What I’m saying is that if Americans want to get vaccinated, if they want to be protected from COVID-19, whether it’s the Delta variant or the new Lambda variant that’s coming across our southern border as we speak, if you want to be protected, go get the vaccine, I fully promote your doing that. At the same time there are Americans that don’t want to get it; they shouldn’t be forced to do so.”
He also provided some personal perspective.
“I chose not to get vaccinated because I chose not to get vaccinated,” he said. “I already had COVID-19 once, I’m 42 years old, I’m in very good health, I actually get checkups regularly and do all those things. That is a personal decision for myself; members of my family, my wife and three kids, they’ve all had COVID. They’re not getting vaccinated, they’re all healthy. That is a decision they’ve chosen to make.
“If people in the United States are concerned about contracting and being hospitalized and dying, of course, from COVID-19, please go get vaccinated. I will never tell you not to get vaccinated. What I’m saying is: I made a decision not to get vaccinated and it doesn’t matter if it’s you or Joe Biden or anybody else that’s going to stress or want me to get it…I made that decision as a free person.”
The CNN anchor was having none of it: “Everybody should know that about you, Byron Donalds: you’re not telling people to get the vaccine, you are not pushing it and you’re not saying it’s the right choice. You’re saying you’re not doing it and your family’s not doing it and you’re leaving that out of the equation that you can make other people sick as though that doesn’t matter.”
Then, in a head-spinning act of projection, in an Aug. 10 Fox News interview with host Lawrence Jones III, Donalds went on to accuse Democrats of racism and trying to reintroduce segregation based on vaccination status.
“So when you look at what’s going on in the country, yes, the largest percentage of our population has vaccine hesitancy is the Black community,” said Donalds. “At this point I will tell anybody: go talk to your doctor, get the information; if you feel comfortable enough, then go get the vaccine. But the way the Democrats are going is typically what they always do. You see they have no problem choosing segregation; it’s their history. Their way of maintaining power is no different today.”
Then he accused Democrats and the federal government of not giving people sufficient information to make informed decisions whether to get vaccinated.
As he put it: “And so, when you give people credible information, you break it down for them people will actually see: Is their risk of infection higher? Yes. Is their risk of hospitalization higher than someone who is vaccinated? Yes. But the risk of death is still significantly lower than somebody who was in the vulnerable population, whether with the original strain or now with the Delta variant. The White House doesn’t want to give that information ‘cause their entire goal is zero COVID, so Joe Biden can run around saying that he solved the pandemic. Give people real information, they will make decisions for themselves in their own lives.”
Editor’s note: A new study released on Aug. 6 revealed that even those with a previous bout of COVID like Donalds’ should get vaccinated.
“If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, stated at that time. “This study shows you are twice as likely to get infected again if you are unvaccinated. Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and others around you, especially as the more contagious Delta variant spreads around the country.”
Commentary: Is Donalds an anti-vaxxer?
It’s clear that in his vaccination positions, Donalds is trying to thread the needle between hard-core, fanatical anti-vaxxers who make up a significant part of his political base and the rest of humanity that’s trying to survive.
In his public statements, Donalds argues that he isn’t anti-vaccine per se. He just thinks vaccinations are a personal choice.
That may be true enough. But as he perfectly well knows, the unvaccinated are not only endangering their own lives but those of their families and everyone around them. Defeating the virus is an all-or-nothing effort.
While Donalds may parse his opposition to vaccinations, in fact his actions speak louder than words—but his words are pretty powerful too.
By refusing to vaccinate himself and his family, he is setting a prominent, public example of vaccine resistance. By not verbally endorsing vaccinations, he’s encouraging vaccine hesitancy. These failures to act or speak are helping spread the virus in Southwest Florida.
His criticism of Democrats—and by extension the CDC and the entire government—for somehow not providing the hesitant with enough information is mind-boggling. Since taking office President Joe Biden, his administration and his team have been inundating the airwaves and public spaces with the kind of data, facts, studies and conclusions that were never shared under President Donald Trump. This is an administration of transparency, frankness and encouragement that is trying to defeat the pandemic. It’s people like Donalds who are making that more difficult.
His attacks on Democrats for somehow displaying racism and renewing segregation based on vaccination status are simple, absurd projections that aren’t even worthy of refutation. They’re just pages from Donald Trump’s well-worn book of distractions, projections and narcissistic mind tricks.
What is more, his personal example of getting vaccinated might encourage people in the Black community who might be vaccine-hesitant to get the shot. Instead, he’s giving legitimacy to vaccine resistance that could take Black lives—while turning around and accusing Democrats of racism.
But politically, Donalds is trying to have it all ways: he’s anti-vaxx while not specifically denouncing vaccinations. He is, however, denouncing those, like Fauci, who are desperately attempting to protect people from the pandemic. He presents himself as standing for individual freedom while at the same time standing in the way of public health measures that might preserve lives, especially those of school-age children.
He appears more concerned with protecting his political future and pandering to the most extreme and ignorant elements of his base than saving lives and protecting the public.
This balancing act on the edge of the precipice is not working. Instead, it smacks of moral cowardice and a failure—or inability—to lead.
Ultimately, when the chronicle of this plague is written, Rep. Byron Donalds will go down in history as an accomplice of Death.
That’s not the way anyone should want to be remembered.
Liberty lives in light
© 2021 by David Silverberg