By Zac Anderson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 4, 2021
The vaccine favoritism questions swirling around Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis received a national spotlight Sunday when the popular CBS news program “60 Minutes” took an in-depth look at the issue, with the report highlighting how the governor’s campaign donors were involved in the vaccine rollout.
The “60 Minutes” report touched on a controversial vaccine pop-up clinic in Lakewood Ranch that drew a federal complaint, which was first reported by the USA TODAY Network; the state’s arrangement with Publix to distribute vaccine, and the disparity in vaccine distribution in Palm Beach County.
Vaccine favoritism questions have dogged the governor since the early days of the rollout, starting with the state’s January partnership with Publix, which donated $100,000 to the governor’s political committee in December, to conduct vaccinations.
Critics questioned whether DeSantis was favoring a single grocery chain that had donated to his campaign. Those questions were especially pronounced in Palm Beach County, which relied heavily on Publix for vaccine distribution early in the rollout.
Gov. DeSantis to Alfonsi: ‘That’s a fake narrative’
The “60 Minutes” report highlighted how residents of one of the poorest areas of Palm Beach County, the heavily minority communities ringing Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades region, had to travel long distances to reach a Publix.
“60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi questioned DeSantis about the Publix contribution in a heated exchange. The governor pushed back aggressively, saying he asked officials in Palm Beach how they wanted to distribute the vaccine.
“That’s a fake narrative,” DeSantis said. “I met with the county mayor, I met with the administrator, I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County and I said here’s some of the options: We can do more drive through sites, we can give more to hospitals, we can do the Publix. And they said we think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.”
Pressed by Alfonsi that “the criticism is it’s pay to play,” DeSantis responded, “It’s wrong, it’s a fake narrative.”
The segment mentions a state-run vaccine clinic in Lakewood Ranch and also highlights Pat Neal, a prominent DeSantis donor who builds homes in Lakewood Ranch and other communities that received special access to the vaccine.
DeSantis turned to Rex Jensen, the president and CEO of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, to host a clinic in February in his community. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch contributed $2,000 to the governor’s 2018 campaign.
The Lakewood Ranch vaccine clinic was restricted to residents of two wealthy ZIP codes, sparking public outrage. More controversy ensued when it was revealed that Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh, who helped coordinate the clinic, had created a VIP vaccination list that included herself and Jensen.
“60 Minutes” noted that the Lakewood Ranch clinic was the subject of a federal complaint. The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General about the L clinic alleging it engaged in “a discriminatory and fraudulent practice as the U.S. government is supplying the vaccines to the state.”
Neal’s company organized a vaccine clinic in Charlotte County. Neal said in a press release that the governor “reached out to ask for assistance” in coordinating a vaccination event. Neal served on DeSantis’ transition team and contributed $125,000 to his political committee. He is a former state senator who has long been active in Republican politics and is a leading fundraiser for GOP campaigns.
Neal staged the clinic at Kings Gate, a Southwest Florida community where he builds homes. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune revealed that Neal’s company also invited residents of other communities to participate in the Charlotte County clinic, including two upscale Sarasota County communities that Neal is developing: the Boca Royale Golf & Country Club in Englewood and the Grand Palm development in Venice.
Boca Royale has homes valued at more than $1 million. Grand Palm has homes approaching that price level. The development also has a large water slide and a children’s splash pad.
At least 150 communities had pop-up clinics or priority access to vaccine
A USA TODAY Network analysis of state and local government records, news reports and information from private developers found at least 150 communities that landed vaccine pop-ups or priority access to doses. Data provided by the state is incomplete so there likely are many more.
Pop-up clinics offering exclusive vaccine access sprouted at country clubs and a long list of golf course communities stretching from Delray Beach to Lakeland and Ocala. Special clinics also dotted the west coast, from the Tampa exurbs to Naples, where shots were given at a clubhouse in a community with two private beaches and homes that have sold for more than $14 million. A pair of yacht clubs in Martin County and the Florida Keys even secured special vaccine access.
Some communities are home to large DeSantis donors
According to the Miami Herald, a newsletter sent on Jan. 22 to Ocean Reef Club residents reported that more than 1,200 of them had been vaccinated. A home currently under construction in the club’s Sunrise Cay neighborhood is listed at $19.9 million.
Seventeen Ocean Reef Club residents gave $5,000 to DeSantis. Bruce Rauner, a resident and former Republican governor of Illinois, also cut a $250,000 check to the governor’s political committee shortly after the club’s residents were vaccinated, according to state records.
DeSantis said during a press conference that the state was not involved in getting the vaccine doses to Ocean Reef, but the hospital that distributed the doses disputed that. A Baptist Health spokeswoman said Ocean Reef’s medical center asked the state for the doses, and state officials sent them to Baptist Health with instructions to pass them along, according to the Herald.
Another upscale community that received special vaccine access is Pelican Bay in Naples, a 6,500-home development with two private beaches and a private tram system with eight stops. Homes in the community’s most exclusive beachfront neighborhood have sold for $14.9 million, $16.4 million and $24.5 million.
Pelican Bay is home to more than two dozen DeSantis donors, including one who gave $25,000.
DeSantis has faced criticism for months over his handling of the vaccine rollout but the “60 Minutes” segment may be the broadest platform yet for airing those concerns. It regularly is the most watched Sunday prime time program, with audiences topping 10 million.