Gov. Rick Scott, in desperate need to one-up his fellow governors amid all this Ebola hysteria, knows what he has to do.
It’s exactly the kind of bold, decisive, original move Scott needs heading into the last week of his reelection campaign.
On Saturday, the governor ordered the strict monitoring of travelers coming to Florida from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Unhappily, that didn’t do much to move the polls, which show him in a dead heat with former Gov. Charlie Crist. Apparently, voters are less concerned about contracting a deadly hemorrhagic fever than the prospect that one or the other of these two human maladies will get another turn as governor.
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Perhaps Scott was too late jumping on the Ebola train to get much of a bounce in public opinion polls. The governors of New York, Illinois and New Jersey had already scarfed up most of the attention, issuing similar orders. Scott had failed to heed the old adage: If you're going to exploit a deadly disease for political purposes, you need to get ahead of the crowd.
It was also obvious, as Chris Christie accompanied Scott on a campaign swing through South Florida Sunday and Monday, that the less-than-charismatic Scott needed something special to distinguish himself from all those other pols out there flouting advice from public health experts and whipping up an Ebola panic.
The New Jersey governor, who in physique, demeanor and hairiness is everything the Florida governor isn’t, had not only gotten the jump on Scott in ordering special restrictions on travelers coming out of the three stricken West African nations, he had locked up an actual, heroic Médecins Sans Frontières nurse, just to show he meant business.
It didn't much matter that Kaci Hickox, 33, was not symptomatic. When she flew into Newark Friday, coming back after working in Sierra Leone, Hickox was intercepted by airport security and tossed into involuntary quarantine. Christie kept her there, peering out from behind the translucent plastic window of her jerry-rigged quarantine tent, simmering with anger rather than fever, a prisoner of Ebola politics.
Christie described her as “obviously ill,” though she was obviously not. “First of all, I don't think he’s a doctor; secondly, he’s never laid eyes on me; and thirdly, I’ve been asymptomatic since I’ve been here," Hickox told CNN.
Dr. Christie finally relented Monday as Hickox’s lawyers were closing in and allowed her to head home to Maine. But the big, brash wise guy from Jersey had managed to dominate the tough-on-Ebola optics all weekend. And it allowed him to make a show of ignoring public health scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who had argued, futilely, “The best way to protect us is to stop the epidemic in Africa, and we need those healthcare workers, so we do not want to put them in a position where it makes it very, very uncomfortable for them to even volunteer to go.”
Nothing a pol likes better than dissing some smarty pants science guy.
What could poor Scott do after a show like that? Florida, unhappily, has no direct flights from West Africa, robbing the governor of the opportunity to snatch his own unwitting health worker heading home from working a thankless (very thankless in an election year) humanitarian mission.
Florida, however, has plenty of flights out of Texas, particularly from Dallas, the virtual Ebola capital of the United States (given the paucity of actual cases in the U.S.) after a traveler from Liberia showed up at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital last month with a fatal case of the disease. Two nurses treating the Liberian were infected, setting off a mighty political reaction.
Instituting a travel ban on Texans would only be slightly more irrational than grabbing Kaci Hickox. And it would give Scott his own Chris Christie-style TV moment. (Plus, the Texas ban would have the added advantage of barring the San Antonio Spurs from traveling to Miami, speaking of specters apt to make Floridians ill.)
Scott needs to do something, and quick. Something to create an illusion that he’s concerned and determined to take action, to hell with what the public health docs say. He needs to issue another bold executive order. A ban of some kind or another. It doesn't really matter what, as long as it references Ebola. To be in effect right up until Election Day.