If you’re a resident of Manatee County, Florida, who has complaints about Gov. Ron DeSantis giving special vaccine access to two of the county’s wealthiest zip codes, he doesn’t want to hear it.
In fact, he might take away your vaccines for even daring to bring it up.
DeSantis personally arranged for an exclusive vaccination site to be set up in the Lakewood Ranch planned community in Manatee County, where residents of two of the county’s wealthiest zip codes could receive the vaccine, the Bradenton Herald reported earlier this week. Up to 3,000 people were expected to be vaccinated.
But some local officials questioned why the wealthy area was chosen as a vaccine pop-up site, as opposed to areas of the county that have been hit harder by the pandemic.
“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, told the Bradenton Herald.
DeSantis didn’t like that at all. During a Wednesday press conference, he threatened to pull the vaccines.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said. “And we’re totally happy to do that...but I think most people, if we have an opportunity to bring vaccines and do it efficiently, they’re going to want it.”
DeSantis said he didn’t “understand the accusation” that the distribution was motivated by politics, and noted that the 3,000 extra doses were in addition to the 6,000 the county gets each week.
"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,’” DeSantis said. "It wasn't choosing one zip code over another."
He added that county officials should be happy despite the vaccines going disproportionately to the wealthiest, whitest communities. “I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t be complaining,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “I’d be thankful that we are able to do it.”
Vanessa Baugh, the county commissioner who represents the area, said she chose the zip codes that would receive the special access to vaccines because they are “huge areas that really encompass lots of southeast area of Manatee County, which is what the governor wanted to do.” But she wouldn’t answer questions from local media this week about why Lakewood Ranch was chosen—even as other county officials were furious about the process, which appeared to only involve Baugh.
DeSantis has some interesting connections to the family that owns Lakewood Ranch.
Lakewood Ranch’s parent company, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, is owned by members of the billionaire Uihlein family. Dick and Liz Uihlein, the most famous members of the family, and the founders of Uline shipping wholesale company, weren’t shareholders in Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, a spokesperson for Schroeder-Manatee told the Sun-Sentinel.
Politically, the Uihleins have played a heavy role in funding right-wing Republican political candidates and causes. Dick Uihlein, who lives in Illinois, has given nearly $1 million to DeSantis’ political committee since 2018, and gave well over $60 million to conservative candidates and groups at the federal level during the 2020 cycle, according to campaign finance records.
Florida Democrats were infuriated by DeSantis’ comments about potentially pulling vaccines on Wednesday. Florida agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat elected statewide, said that jabs “should be distributed to counties based on need, capacity, and science.”
“There is no reason that Gov. DeSantis should be rationing vaccines based on political influence,” she said in a statement to the Sun-Sentinel. “This is troubling and potentially illegal.”
This is not the first criticism lodged against DeSantis over unequal vaccine distribution. In January, the state decided to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in Palm Beach County exclusively at Publix supermarket stores, rather than the county health department.
Just a month earlier, Publix had donated $100,000 to DeSantis’ political committee, though both DeSantis and Publix have denied any ties between the donations and the decision to make Publix the sole distributor of the vaccine.
Palm Beach officials pointed out that Publix generally doesn’t have stores in poorer areas; some areas of the county were 30 miles away from the nearest Publix location, according to the Palm Beach Post.
“This is more evidence that DeSantis doesn’t care about Black people,” Democratic Rep. Omari Hardy told the Palm Beach Post. “Not one bit.”