While there continues to be growing outrage over the news that an heiress to the Publix Super Markets chain bankrolled most of the cost of the January 6 insurrection rally — with #BoycottPublix trending on Twitter — there is another new Publix scandal here in Florida that has gotten less attention. Just a few weeks after Publix donated $100,000 to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ PAC, DeSantis announced a partnership with the the grocery chain to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to people 65+ through Publix stores in selected counties in Florida. Can you say quid pro quo? I knew you could.
Publix gave two $25,000 contributions on December 7 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee and two additional $25,000 contributions on December 31, according to Florida’s Division of Elections campaign finance database. Just a few days later, on January 5, DeSantis announced that Publix and the Florida Department of Health would work together to distribute COVID vaccine doses to customers age 65 years and older. Hmmm. Of course, DeSantis’ people and Publix officials deny any link to the company’s recent large donation to DeSantis, but so far have refused to offer any details on how long their vaccine distribution “partnership” discussions and plans have been underway.
Many have also questioned why the state wouldn’t partner with CVS and Walgreens for vaccine distribution.
Both chains have even more stores in Florida than Publix.
Both also have contracts with the feds to provide vaccines to long-term care facilities. So they’re obviously capable. In fact, Walgreens says it’s already providing vaccines in 11 other states.
A Walgreens spokesman responded: “The State of Florida has not requested that Walgreens distribute vaccines in Florida at this time.”
One possible answer: Walgreens made just one $25,000 contribution to the governor’s political committee back in February 2020, and CVS is not on the PAC’s list of contributors.
Things got worse last week when DeSantis announced a new pilot program in Palm Beach County — current home to Individual 1 coincidentally — whereby Publix would be the SOLE distributor of the vaccine in the county, taking away vaccines initially earmarked for the department of health and reallocating them to Publix pharmacies. This announcement drew immediate outrage from county officials and residents.
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay declared that she was “absolutely disgusted” at the Governor’s decision. McKinlay and other officials rightly pointed out that beside the highly questionable decision to take vaccine distribution out of the hands of public health and medical officials and turn it over to a corporate entity, the decision would exacerbate inequities that already exist in the state’s vaccinations to date.
The Black community in Palm Beach County is grossly underrepresented among its vaccine recipients. Overall, about a third of the county’s 375,000 seniors have received at least their first dose, according to the State Health Department. But only 3% of the county’s vaccinations have been given to recipients who registered as Black, well below the 20% of the population they comprise.
Many rural, Black and low-income communities in the county have no easy access to a Publix store, with some communities being up to 40 miles away from the nearest Publix. This includes the predominantly Black farming communities on Lake Okeechobee’s shores, home to sugarcane production.
Democratic member of the House of Representatives in Florida Omari Hardy, who represents part of Palm Beach County, expressed his concerns with the decision on Twitter: “There are entire communities that don’t have a Publix, communities like the Glades, which is majority Black, rural, and economically depressed. Other Black communities with Publixes, like Riviera Beach in my district, don’t have pharmacies at them. So no vaccines there either.”
“The decision to make Publix the sole vaccine distributor in Palm Beach County means that Black people will continue to struggle to gain access to this vaccine. He has to know this,” Hardy continued. “This is more evidence DeSantis doesn’t care one bit about Black people. Not one bit.”
Three mayors in the county recently wrote a letter to the governor expressing their concern over this decision. “In more affluent communities, none of those distances would be a barrier to getting the vaccine,” the mayors wrote. “This is simply unacceptable, and, quite frankly, unconscionable. Placing such a barrier on an already vulnerable, highly underserved population cannot be allowed to happen.”
Facing mounting public outrage, DeSantis changed course of Friday. The Florida Division of Emergency Management announced that some vaccines solely earmarked for Publix will now be given back to the Health Care District of Palm Beach County and Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County.
It’s outrageous that DeSantis and Publix thought they could get away with this in the first place, And it’s difficult to know what other tricks DeSantis will have up his sleeve to line the pockets of his contributors and continue to ignore dramatic inequities and incompetence in how the vaccine is being distributed in Florida.
As for Publix, their slogan is “where shopping is a pleasure.” Might have to change that to “where profiting off of people’s misery and destroying democracy is a pleasure.”