TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled Wednesday to an affluent, mostly white community in Manatee County to tout a pop-up vaccination site he said would make it easier for seniors there to get the shot.
The Republican governor was already facing attacks by local officials upset he put the new “pod“ in the county’s two wealthiest zip codes, even as racial disparities continue to affect the state’s vaccine rollout, and he had blunt message he wanted to deliver in person: If you don’t like it, we’ll leave.
“If Manatee County does not like us doing this, we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said during a Wednesday news conference in Lakewood Ranch, an upscale development in the county. “If you want us to send to Sarasota next time, or Charlotte, or Pasco, let us know. We are happy to do it.”
The move to set up the vaccination site in the Republican-leaning area, which was first reported by the Bradenton Herald, comes as other areas of the state run short on vaccines and as the governor ignores calls for the state to ramp up efforts to address the racial disparities. Just 5.3 percent of the vaccine doses the state has administered so far have gone to Black residents, according to state data. Nearly 17 percent of Florida‘s population is Black.
Black faith leaders last month said DeSantis’ office did not respond to them when they put forward a plan to use a network of churches and community centers in largely Black communities to vaccinate millions of people.
After DeSantis flashed his trademark defiance on Wednesday, state Rep. Omari Hardy (D-West Palm Beach) took to Twitter to offer a “translation” of what he took DeSantis’ comments to mean: “If you criticize me in my official capacity as a public official, I will withhold life-preserving resources from your community.”
The process for selecting the site started with a Feb. 9 phone call from Lakewood Ranch developer and frequent GOP donor Rex Jensen, the Herald reported. Also on the line was Pat Neal, a developer who builds homes in Lakewood Ranch and is also a major donor to the Florida GOP. He has given $135,000 to DeSantis’ political committee since 2018. Neal declined to comment.
Manatee County commissioners Misty Servia and Reggie Bellamy told the Herald that the Lakewood Ranch site DeSantis selected would exclusively serve Jensen’s affluent residents. DeSantis denied using zip codes to determine which communities get the vaccine first.
“It was a choice about where there’s a high concentration of seniors, and where you could have communities to provide the vaccine,” DeSantis said during the Wednesday press conference, which grew heated at times.
Lakewood Ranch falls under the district of Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh, a Republican, who said during a Tuesday night public meeting she had little time to plan after DeSantis made the call to Jensen.
“We did it the best we could on a very short notice,” Braugh said.
DeSantis’ statewide vaccination plan gives top priority to Florida’s 4.5 million residents older than age 64. Data provided by DeSantis office shows only 29 percent of Manatee County seniors have been vaccinated so far — the fourth lowest in the state. St. Johns County had the highest number of vaccinated seniors, with 67 percent. St. Johns was followed by Leon County with 66 percent, and Wakulla County with 65 percent.
Highlands and Glades counties had the lowest percentage of vaccinated seniors at 25 percent.
Manatee County will receive 6,000 vaccine doses from the roughly 400,000 that the state expects to receive from the federal government in the next few days. DeSantis said he also expects an additional 30,000 shots to arrive, and 3,000 of them will go to the Lakewood Ranch site, DeSantis said.
More than 2.4 million people in Florida were vaccinated against Covid-19 as of Tuesday, including more than 1.8 million seniors. DeSantis said he may increase vaccine eligibility in the coming weeks as more seniors take shots.
R.B. Holmes Jr., a pastor of Tallahassee-based Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, said last month that he sent a plan to DeSantis offices to use a network of churches and community centers in predominantly Black neighborhoods as vaccination sites, but his proposal was ignored.
"For some reason, Florida is a little hesitant about working collectively, with a group of volunteers who reached out our arms and not our fists," Holmes told POLITICO. "But that’s why the federal government is so important. … If it were just states’ rights, we’d still be living under Jim Crowism.”
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