In a shocking, but hardly surprising report, the Republican Governor of Florida got caught selling vaccines to some of the state’s wealthiest country club residents while those who don’t donate, including minority communities and communities that vote Democratic, are getting left behind.
Florida Governor Ron Desantis (R) got exposed by Miami’s largest newspaper for giving early priority vaccine access to some of the 10,000 residents of Key Largo, the northernmost island of The Keys archipelago that is connected to Miami by the Overseas Highway, after receiving seventeen maxed-out political contributions from residents. Meanwhile, the state has one of America’s worst vaccination rates in communities of color, and they handed a quarter of their vaccine supply to the Publix Supermarket chain—another major DeSantis donor—without bothering to track outcomes.
But Desantis didn’t even distribute the vaccine equally on Key Largo either, giving an early supply only to the members of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club, a massive private country club where “an array of amenities are just a golf cart ride away,” including 30 club facilities and 19 restaurants for the 1,700 residential homes in the 2,500-acre community which includes a private airstrip and multiple golf courses. As the Miami Herald reports, DeSantis appears to have received quite the political gratuity for his efforts:
All 17 of the [Ocean Reef Club residents] had given the governor contributions of $5,000 each through December 2020, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
But on Feb. 25, one resident of Ocean Reef, Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois and former chairman of the Chicago-based private equity firm GTCR, increased his contribution and wrote a $250,000 check.
While omitting its contingent of former Republican governors, the Ocean Reef Club’s website boasts of its diverse contingent of out-of-state and international members, many of whom probably traveled to Florida to get the vaccine that might not have been available in their home country or state. “There is a heavy contingency of Members from the Mid-West, North-East, and Florida,” says their website. “But don’t let that fool you, the Club has a large population from Canada and representation from countries around the world.”
Earlier this week, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, as well as former Governor, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) both called for a Congressional investigation into DeSantis’ vaccine distribution corruption.
“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” said Fried at a press conference today in Tallahassee reacting to the news about Ocean Reef. “I know that we will get to the bottom of this, so I am asking the FBI Public Corruption Unit to be investigating this. I don’t need a law degree from Harvard to know when there is smoke there is fire. The fact pattern is simply just too clear to avoid: give campaign contribution big dollars, get special access to vaccines.”
It won’t be hard for Congress to find wrongdoing from the 3rd most populous state’s full-Trump disciple governor who openly uses the Covid-19 vaccine as a political bargaining chip and isn’t even shy about saying so to the media. In January, DeSantis was exposed for distributing vaccines mostly to counties that voted for Trump through the Publix chain. Then last month, he announced that he’d order the state to pull supplies from communities that criticize him.
Earlier this week, President Biden called out Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi for “neanderthal thinking” by dropping mask mandates and restrictions, but Florida’s Governor, however, thinks several steps lower on the evolutionary scale. Gov. DeSantis long ago issued a statewide ban on all mask mandates or covid mitigations throughout the state. This has turned the Sunshine State into a ‘melting pot’ for viral variants that are known to evade vaccines.
Meanwhile, CBS Money Watch determined that Broward, Florida’s second-largest county with a majority-minority population doesn’t have a single Publix Supermarket delivering vaccines, but affluent Boca Raton has ten locations for its mostly white residents. Residents of the 10 whitest and wealthiest counties are twice as likely to be vaccinated as their peers. Most of the vaccines are going to these wealthy communities regardless of the size of outbreaks, so there is no relief to communities experiencing the most damage from Covid-19.
In a news conference today, DeSantis denied the allegations of corruption, blaming the way his failed policies created racial disparities and wealth gaps in vaccine distribution on his decision to outsourcing all decisions to private parties, by saying that a hospital with a facility inside the Key Largo club is responsible for one of the multiple wealthy communities who’ve gotten rapid vaccine access.
But it is impossible for Florida residents to miss the fact that their Republican Governor’s actions prioritize life-saving Covid-19 vaccines for wealthy, often seasonal residents or international visitors over people of color or those more modest means, or the ten urban counties who believe in science and voted for Joe Biden.
Here’s a video of Commissioner Fried calling for the FBI to investigate Gov. DeSantis:
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Grant Stern is the Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report, and an unpaid senior advisor to the Democratic Coalition.