Florida’s governor was slow to respond to the pandemic and his Covid-19 vaccine distribution plan has been marked by chaos, but critics say he’s been quick to recognize the political gold in those precious doses.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, ignored federal guidelines and prioritized getting senior citizens — one of Florida’s most potent voting blocs — vaccinated first.
When Holocaust survivors and Cuban survivors of the Bay of Pigs debacle — revered members of two other key Florida voting blocs — got their first shots, DeSantis made sure he was there for the news conferences.
And now the governor stands accused of using the Covid-19 vaccine to reward powerful political supporters and developers by setting up pop-up vaccination sites in planned communities they developed and where GOP voters predominate.
Responding to recent criticism from both Republican and Democrats in Manatee and Charlotte counties, both south of Tampa, where one site was set up last week and another began dispensing doses on Wednesday, DeSantis said local lawmakers should be more grateful
“I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t be complaining,” the governor said. “I’d be thankful that we are able to do it.”
DeSantis said that his "seniors first strategy" zeroes in on retirement communities that are willing to help organize vaccination events and that Manatee County has trailed other parts of the state in getting needles into the arms of residents ages 65 and older.
The governor said the state had set up similar sites at the Kings Point community in Palm Beach County, Sun City Center in Hillsborough County, and The Villages retirement community northwest of Orlando.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” he said.
There was no response from the DeSantis administration when NBC News reached out for comment, but on Thursday the governor was in Largo in Pinellas County at another hurriedly arranged pop-up vaccination operation.
There DeSantis boasted about vaccinating the 2 millionth senior citizen in Florida, a 94-year-old Korean war veteran named Vern Cummings whose vaccination was broadcast live on FOX News.
Earlier, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat, blasted DeSantis for threatening Manatee County.
“To threaten that he would pull vaccine if people don’t like the way the distribution system is working is vile and shows the callous indifference he has had in how the vaccine has been handled,” she said on Wednesday.
But there is little to stop DeSantis from distributing the vaccines any way he wants.
In December, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released recommendations on who should be getting vaccinated first. But the Trump administration essentially left the distribution of the doses up to governors, said Philip J. Palin, a veteran government consultant who specializes in delivering supplies to survivors of catastrophes.
This allowed DeSantis to put senior citizens in the same category as front-line health care workers, and the result was chaos when some counties began offering shots on a first-come, first-served basis.
In Charlotte County, officials said they were caught unaware when a vaccination station suddenly opened last week in the Kings Gate retirement community in Port Charlotte and 3,000 doses were dispensed.
Harvey Goldstein, who sits on the county’s GOP executive committee and does not live in the development, said he first learned of the pop-up when a regular Republican Party meeting was canceled so that some of the members could get their shots.
“It looks like they were allowed to jump the line ahead of the 90,000 people in the county who are still waiting to get a shot,” Goldstein, 81, told NBC News.
“If you set up rules about who should get vaccinated first they should apply to everyone. I haven’t heard any rationale for them to get their shots ahead of the people who registered in the county.”
Goldstein said he suspects the reason Kings Gate got special treatment is because it was built by Benderson Development and “they swing a heavy hammer in Tallahassee.” NBC News has reached out to the company's marketing director, Julie Fanning, but there was no immediate response.
Charlotte County Democratic Party Chair Teresa Jenkins said DeSantis’ decision to open a vaccination center in Kings Gate created the appearance that “politically connected people who are likely to vote for the governor are getting prioritized.”
“There’s quite a bit of anger out there,” Jenkins told NBC News. “So many of us get online every morning trying to get a vaccination appointment. We have people who are waiting and waiting and waiting for their shots. And here we see vaccinations being distributed in areas where there are mostly political supporters of Gov. DeSantis.”
Of the 1,900 residents of Kings Gate, Jenkins said, only 150 are registered Democrats.
“That says something,” said Jenkins. “And we’re very angry about it.”
Some of that anger was on display Tuesday at a meeting of the Manatee County Commission, where many attendees first learned that 3,000 doses were being delivered Wednesday to another pop-up vaccination station in Lakewood Ranch, a wealthy development that straddles the Manatee and Sarasota county border.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why we would vaccinate the most affluent neighborhoods in the county ahead of everyone else, especially the underserved neighborhoods and large number of manufactured home parks in our community,” Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia, a Republican, wrote in a text message to The Bradenton Herald.
Lakewood Ranch’s parent company, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, is owned by the Illinois-based Uihlein family, members of which have given millions to the Republican Party.
“The state [Gov. DeSantis] called our CEO and asked to hold a pop-up clinic in Lakewood Ranch,” Schroeder-Manatee Ranch spokeswoman Lisa Barnott wrote in an email to The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. “We connected them with our county commissioner, who coordinated the use of the county-owned Premier Sports Campus.”
The commissioner in question was Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh, a Republican who is close to DeSantis and who defended the decision at the public meeting Tuesday.
“It’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” Baugh said. “Did I even stop to think that this board and others would be so upset about it? No, to be honest, I didn’t. I think it was a great idea.”
Shortly after NBC News reached out to Baugh for elaboration, her spokesman sent a statement from the commissioner which read, in part:
”I fully support the Governor, his Covid-19 response and his team’s decision to vaccinate a group of seniors who have a below state average for receiving vaccinations,” it said.
Baugh closed by thanking DeSantis “for standing strong in the face of so much media criticism.”
“Florida has stayed open, kept families employed and still managed the pandemic better than most any other state,” she wrote.
Florida, according to the latest NBC News tally, has reported 1.84 million Covid-19 infections and nearly 30,000 deaths due to the coronavirus, some of the worst numbers in the nation.
Most of those infections and deaths came after DeSantis, a staunch Trump supporter, claimed victory over the virus during a White House visit in April and reopened the state over the objections of health experts.
CORRECTION (Feb. 20, 2021, 3:40 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that the Lakewood Ranch development and is parent company, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, which is owned by the Illinois-based Uihlein family, had a connection to Dick Uihlein, a prominent donor to Gov. DeSantis. Dick Uihlein's lawyer says he has no connection to Schroeder-Manatee or the Lakewood Ranch. That section has been removed from the article.