BRADENTON, Fla. – Over and over and over, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has described his COVID-19 vaccination plan in just two words: “Seniors First” — yet the addition of two extra words at the beginning might have made it far more accurate: “Rich” and “White.”
Because, while coronavirus vaccines are more broadly available in Florida today just as they are nationally, DeSantis’ earliest efforts, particularly his high-profile visits to the opening of “pop-up” vaccine clinics around the state, favored wealthier, whiter communities — which also happen to be his voting base.
“I’m 71 years old, and I haven’t been able to get one,” said Willie Smith, a Black retired truck driver and Air Force veteran, during a visit to Little Buddy’s Neighborhood Store to pick up some lottery tickets. “I’ve been trying to go online, but I haven’t been able to get one. They’re always full.”
Smith’s bad luck was to live in a poor part of Bradenton rather than a dozen miles east in Lakewood Ranch, a brand-new housing development where the median household income is $106,000 — nearly twice that of Manatee County as a whole and quadruple that of Smith’s neighborhood. DeSantis staged a photo opportunity at Lakewood Ranch’s Premier Sports Complex in February, bringing 3,000 doses with him, for the exclusive benefit of residents of the two zip codes that make up the development.
Another “pop-up” clinic was set up at a golf course retirement community near Punta Gorda, in southwest Florida’s Charlotte County, that was built by a major donor. Still another was set up for The Villages, the famously Republican retirement community near Ocala.
And a clinic was even arranged for 1,200 residents in Key Largo’s Ocean Reef Club, an exclusive enclave of multi-million dollar homes, many with their own docks with quick access to the Atlantic. According to reporting by the Miami Herald, the hospital providing the vaccine doses for that clinic had to cancel hundreds of appointments already made for other people, including those with underlying health problems.
“It’s almost like if you’re not a contributor, you don’t exist. It’s like he can’t see you.”
Even DeSantis’ efforts in January to partner exclusively with the Publix grocery store chain contributed to the racial and socioeconomic disparity in vaccinations. While the Florida-based company — which is also a major DeSantis donor — has more pharmacies than any other chain in the state, it has also purposefully targeted middle-class to wealthy neighborhoods in Florida over the decades, leaving poorer areas to competitors like Winn-Dixie and Food Lion. Other chains only began offering vaccines in February as part of the federal retail pharmacy program.
“It’s actually as bad as it looks,” said Tracy Pratt, chair of the Manatee County Democrats. “We have a lot of vulnerable people who have been shut in, and they were angry that people who had access through a wealthy developer got theirs first.”
DeSantis has scoffed at such critiques, typically with base-pleasing attacks on the news media. The governor and his office claim that wealth and race played no role in his vaccine rollout and point out that the first locations to get clinics were retirement communities in Democrat-rich Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“It’s the age that matters,” DeSantis said at a news conference last month in Lehigh Acres in southwest Florida. “Black, white, rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats, that doesn’t matter. If you’re 65 and up, we want to get you the shot.”
Actual statistics say otherwise. According to an exhaustive analysis of vaccine and demographic data by the USA Today Network of Florida newspapers, Floridians 65 and older in the richest third of the counties had been vaccinated at a rate 4 percentage points higher than the rest of the state. What’s more, the better access for the rich has resulted in just 6.4% of the state’s vaccines going to African Americans, although they account for 17% of the state’s population.
And as the first-term Republican governor prepares for his 2022 reelection campaign and possibly a 2024 presidential run, the seemingly preferential treatment for his likeliest voters on a life-and-death matter is giving Democrats who hope to stop him a potent talking point.
“It’s almost like if you’re not a contributor, you don’t exist. It’s like he can’t see you,” said Charlie Crist, Florida’s former Republican governor and current Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg. Crist is considering a second run as a Democrat for his old job, having come within 64,000 votes – one percentage point – of beating then-incumbent Republican Rick Scott in 2014. “It pains me to see what’s happening.”
Nikki Fried, who in 2018 became the first Democrat to win a Cabinet office in the state since 2006, is also thought be considering a run for governor next year and has been calling DeSantis’ vaccine program a pay-to-play scheme. “If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” she said at a news conference in Tallahassee last month.
A Post-Pandemic Reelection
The aspirations of Crist and Fried and Democrats generally notwithstanding, DeSantis starts out with an enormous advantage. He is the incumbent, and incumbent governors historically have been hard to beat in Florida.
Over the past half-century, only one sitting governor has lost reelection: Republican Bob Martinez, who in 1990 was defeated by Lawton Chiles, a three-term U.S. senator and Florida legend making his political comeback after two years in retirement.
Democrats Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Chiles all won reelection, as did Republicans Jeb Bush and Rick Scott.
Normal rules, though, may not apply to DeSantis, who won the 2018 GOP nomination almost entirely on the strength of his endorsement by then-President Donald Trump. DeSantis, who is now 42, was a congressman from northeast Florida, little known in the state apart from his regular appearances on Fox News to defend Trump and attack Democrats.
He handily defeated the scion of a cattle and citrus family, who was first elected to the Florida House in the 1990s when he was in his early 20s and was finishing his second term as agriculture commissioner in 2018. The Trump endorsement then became somewhat of an albatross during the general election, and DeSantis barely squeaked out a victory over Andrew Gillum, the state’s first African American major-party nominee who also happened to be caught up in an FBI corruption investigation.
For the first year, DeSantis governed in the traditional Florida Republican mold of Jeb Bush or even Charlie Crist. He promised billions of dollars to restore the Everglades and posthumously pardoned four Black men wrongly convicted of rape in 1949 while pursuing generally pro-business policies. But, by the time of the pandemic, he was back firmly in the Trump camp, loudly and proudly aligning himself with the Fox News viewer base with regular attacks on epidemiologists, public health experts and what he calls the “corporate media.”
He refused to issue a statewide mask mandate and even banned cities and counties last autumn from enforcing mandates they passed on their own. He insisted on reopening schools last fall, months before the arrival of a vaccine, and consistently sided with keeping the economy healthy over limiting the spread of the virus. Restaurants and bars — which experts consider a prime location for the spread of the coronavirus — closed only briefly, and were allowed to fully reopen to pre-pandemic levels in September.
DeSantis’ choices affected not only Florida, but, because the state is a tourist destination, the rest of the country. Spring breakers packing into bars and nightclubs a year ago helped spread the virus to the other three corners of the nation.
“His approach to the pandemic from a public health standpoint was completely irresponsible,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida. “Voters will never forget that he didn’t take their anxiety seriously. He ridiculed them. And he didn’t need to. It was a misstep.”
Tackling COVID-19 The Trump-Fox News Way
A year into the pandemic, DeSantis is continuing to push policies at odds with public health experts. He is suing the Centers for Disease Control to force the resumption of cruise ship sailings — even as he tries to forbid cruise lines and other private businesses from requiring proof of vaccinations from their customers.
His most fraught pandemic-related decisions, though, may wind up being his process for distributing life-saving vaccines for a disease that has already killed 34,000 Floridians.
When they became available in mid-December, DeSantis ignored public health officials’ advice to put front-line workers like police and firefighters in the second group to be inoculated immediately after nursing home residents and medical personnel. Instead, he ordered that the vaccines be made available to anyone 65 and over — even though most people in this category had the ability to remain at home, unlike first responders whose jobs require them to assist potentially coronavirus-positive members of the public.
To DeSantis’ critics, even worse were his office’s decisions, often in consultation with private interests, that put politically connected communities at the head of the line.
Harvey Goldstein, an 81-year-old retired constitutional law professor and a DeSantis supporter, lives in a housing tract immediately adjacent to King’s Gate in Charlotte County. He said he got himself on the list for the county’s vaccine slots and was waiting for his name to come up when he found out that his neighbors living in the golf course community developed by a DeSantis donor were getting a visit from DeSantis and a special vaccine clinic.
“We thought that by just having it at King’s Gate, it was basically jumping the line for those people,” he said. “I just thought that particular issue could have been done better.”
In response to HuffPost’s queries, DeSantis’ office sent out a lengthy list of the various clinics and other vaccine distribution arrangements it has used to target poor and medically underserved areas. It would not, however, say why those programs generally came weeks or months after a more robust effort aimed at whiter, wealthier retirement communities. Nor would it provide the criteria his administration used in scheduling the pop-up clinics around the state.
Two longtime Florida Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said DeSantis does not intentionally favor wealthier white people as much as he suffers from a blind spot for Floridians who do not resemble typical Republican voters. One described how DeSantis had just recently helped Belle Glade, an impoverished sugarcane farming town beside Lake Okeechobee, get its own pop-up clinic after its dismal vaccination statistics were pointed out to him.
That excuse, though, does not fly with Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican consultant who served as Gov. Martinez’s chief of staff in the late 1980s and then ran Jeb Bush’s 1994 campaign. “He was enabled by a combination of confusion and opacity, both of which I assume were intentional,” said Stipanovich, who in recent years has become a vocal critic of Trump and the Republicans who support him. “No one knew what was going on or when or where.”
And Tammy Jackson-Moore, the community activist in Belle Glade who helped get the clinic there, said she would have hoped that data showing how hard COVID-19 was hitting Black and brown communities would have prompted DeSantis’ office to act without the need for lobbying.
“Why did it take so long? We would have hoped that our community would have been treated like other communities,” she said, but added that she is grateful that DeSantis was, in the end, responsive. “We’re hopeful that we can build on that relationship.”
Putting Affluent White Seniors First
With its recently cleared acres and sapling palms held upright with stakes and “villages” with names like “Harmony” and “Indigo,” Lakewood Ranch could be just about any upscale new housing development in Florida.
In late February, though, the former pastureland and upland scrub suddenly became famous for the place where 3,000 well-to-do suburbanites in a politically connected development were suddenly pushed to the head of the coronavirus vaccine line.
“We live in the infamous 34211,” said Deb Pierce, a 70-year-old retired college administrator. “It’s interesting to be living in one of those zip codes that keeps getting mentioned on the national news.”
Text messages obtained under Florida’s expansive public records law show that the county commissioner for that district worked with the CEO of a major developer of Lakewood Ranch and DeSantis’ office to arrange a three-day clinic there and that they seemed fully aware of the political benefits for DeSantis.
After the developer, Rex Jensen, wrote that DeSantis could get good “exposure” with a visit to Lakewood Ranch, county commissioner Vanessa Baugh wrote back: “Excellent point. After all, ’22 is right around the corner.”
Bob Fine, a 72-year-old retired real estate lawyer and Pierce’s husband, said that the upper-middle-class white people of Lakewood Ranch were perfectly capable of navigating the system the county had created to schedule vaccine appointments. He said his neighbors would have multiple phones, tablets and laptops running to secure vaccine appointments, and not just in Manatee County. “People would have as much hardware as they could fit on the table,” he said. “People were driving all over the state.”
Fine and Pierce said they were not at all comfortable getting a vaccine through the special Lakewood Wood ranch clinic, but in the end did not have to wrestle with that dilemma because they got appointments through the already established Manatee County sign-up system.
He added that if extra doses were suddenly to have been had, they should have gone to poorer communities with fewer health care options. “They could have devoted them to parts of the county that were hit the hardest, either underserved by the vaccines, or by COVID itself,” he said.
“I kind of was embarrassed and stayed quiet. Lots of people were unhappy that this was going on.”
One such area is the West Samoset neighborhood of Bradenton, chock full of thrift stores and mini-marts, but no major grocery store or chain pharmacy. On a recent afternoon, in the shade of some trees in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, brothers Anthony and Jeff Warrick explained that they would love to get the vaccine, but really didn’t know where to start.
“We don’t have access to a computer,” said Jeff Warrick, 59, who added that he heard the vaccines had gone to the wealthier part of the county. “They sent ’em all out to Lakewood Ranch, where the money is.”
A few blocks away, Willie Smith did have access to a computer, but as of last week, had still not been able to get an appointment. He had only recently found out he could get a vaccine through one of the drug stores and was unaware of the county’s waitlist for scheduling slots. “They haven’t been doing a good job of broadcasting it,” he said.
Pierce said the episode has left her reluctant to get drawn into conversations about the vaccine with friends and acquaintances. “I kind of was embarrassed and stayed quiet,” she said. “Lots of people were unhappy that this was going on.”
Pierce and Fine, though, are and have been active Democrats. Whether DeSantis’ rollout of the vaccine will offend non-Democrats a year and a half from now, when the pandemic will likely be a fading memory, is unclear. Indeed, his focus on more affluent senior citizens in the first wave of vaccinations may not be offending Republican-leaning voters even today.
John Yarema said he spent weeks calling Sumter County’s health department trying to get an appointment without any luck. “We called and called and called,” he said, before finally getting slots for himself and his wife in mid-March.
The retired lawyer from Allentown, Pennsylvania, is 80 and lives in Bushnell, the county seat a half-hour away from The Villages, where DeSantis held a press conference on Jan. 12 to announce the creation of a clinic that residents could ride their golf carts to. Yarema said he wishes the state could have set up a pop-up clinic in Bushnell — which has a median household income about half that of The Villages — at the same time.
As he loaded supplies from the town’s Winn-Dixie into his car last week, he nevertheless said he cannot blame DeSantis, whom he said he would support if he runs for president, given how many senior citizens live in the retirement community.
“I can understand why he wanted to do it at The Villages,” he said, adding that his two month-delay doesn’t really bother him because he just continued doing what he had been doing for the past year of the pandemic. “I didn’t go out that much.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the location of Lakewood Ranch. The spellings of Gillum’s and Pierce’s names have also been fixed.