Political News

DeSantis defends controversial vaccine deal with developer -- and threatens to pull vaccines if officials don't like it

Posted February 17, 2021 3:56 p.m. EST

— Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to move a pop-up vaccination clinic that his state has set up in an affluent community in Manatee County after he was confronted with allegations of political favoritism and preference for the wealthy at a news conference Wednesday.

Manatee County announced on Tuesday that Florida's Division of Emergency Management would host a "pop-up" vaccination spot at Lakewood Ranch this week for 3,000 Manatee County residents, according to a statement from the county.

The vaccines, however, would be limited to people living in only two zip codes -- 34202 and 34211.

Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia, a Republican, criticized the selection of these two areas at a Board of County Commissioners work session on Tuesday.

"You're taking the Whitest demographic, the richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them ahead of everyone else," Servia said. "The optics are bad ... very bad -- I'm really disappointed," she added.

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy, a Democrat, also noted that he's been "fighting like hell to show people that the (vaccine) lottery is equal and we cannot compromise the system."

"And now all of a sudden someone is telling me that we were able to go in and pull names out -- pull a certain demographic out -- and say, 'These are the people that we're going to serve,'" he added at the Tuesday meeting.

Board of County Commissioners Chair Vanessa Baugh, a Republican who is a strong supporter of DeSantis, said that the clinic "was done strictly by the governor who called Rex Jensen ... they wanted to do a pop up session in Lakewood Ranch."

Jensen is the CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the parent company of Lakewood Ranch, according to the company's website. The development is an affluent community that boasts new home prices "from the $180,000s to more than $1 million," according to its website.

DeSantis, however, defended the choice when confronted with the criticism at a news conference on Wednesday.

"It wasn't a choice about zip codes, it was a choice about where's a high concentration of seniors where you could have communities provide the ability for them to go on (to get vaccinated)," he said.

He also pushed back at the suggestion that the choice was politically motivated, saying he didn't "understand the accusation."

DeSantis fired back at the county officials who had concerns with the choice.

"If Manatee County doesn't like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it," DeSantis said.

"We're going to look to do more and more with the additional doses but anyone in Manatee ... if they don't want us doing it, then just tell us, and we'll make sure that that that we send those doses to folks who want it," he also repeated later in the news conference.

The governor also noted that the doses that will be distributed at this location are in addition to the doses allocated to the county as a whole and that he has set up two of these vaccination events every week in places like The Villages, Kings Point and Sun City in Hillsborough County.

Meanwhile, Lakewood Ranch, in a statement to CNN, said that their involvement in the clinic was only "to help identify a site that could accommodate 1,000 people per day."

"We reached out to Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and asked if the County-owned Premier Sports Campus would be an option," spokeswoman Lisa Barnott said in an email.

Barnott noted that Baugh coordinated the use of the site, as well as use of the Manatee County registry of people who had signed up for vaccinations.

State Democrats have blasted DeSantis for his remarks.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz said in a statement that DeSantis "must stop playing politics with the vaccine distribution here in Florida."

"Threatening retribution and less vaccine access for communities that criticize the vaccine rollout for its problems is shameful and inhumane," Diaz added.

Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo said that "it's disgusting and unacceptable for the governor to politicize life-saving vaccines."

"The Governor owes Manatee county residents an apology and a public statement reassuring the public that political games will not be used in the distribution of vaccines in our state. Period," she added in a statement.

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