Jared Moskowitz, who was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ director of emergency management during the first 14 months of the coronavirus pandemic, said Tuesday he refused to have his agency operate several of the state’s most controversial COVID vaccination sites in early 2021.
The vaccination sites in question were loudly criticized at the time by Democrats as favoring well-off Republican communities with political connections — and being impossible or difficult to access by people who weren’t connected or didn’t have good transportation. DeSantis emphatically rejected the criticism.
Moskowitz, who is currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination for a Broward-Palm Beach County congressional seat, has been hammered by his leading opponents because he worked for DeSantis, the bête noire of Florida Democrats. The primary is Aug. 23.
Moskowitz, in an interview Tuesday with the South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, disputed his opponents’ contention that he was a rubber stamp for the governor on coronavirus questions. Rather, he said, he advocated for Democratic principles within the Republican administration and didn’t participate in setting up the most controversial vaccination sites.
“There was a lot of Jared Moskowitz standing up to Ron DeSantis and some of the decisions, as I was the only Democrat in the room, and the only one who had a different opinion,” Moskowitz said. “But he’s still the governor. He’s got other agencies that can do stuff.
“Obviously there were lots of fighting going on, I was fighting for Democratic values. I was able to win on a lot of those things. Some things I didn’t win on, and the ones that I didn’t win on I didn’t participate in,” Moskowitz said.
Moskowitz said he “was not involved” in the most controversial vaccination sites, and the agency he ran, the Division of Emergency Management, didn’t operate them. “I said, ‘I didn’t want to go there,” adding that he communicated that message to “the governor’s office. The governor wasn’t the one doing it. The governor’s office.”
A pop-up clinic in Charlotte County was located in a community developed by DeSantis’ political donors, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported last year.
A Manatee County site provided access to people living in two of the state’s wealthiest ZIP codes, according to news reports at the time.
Moskowitz said in the Tuesday interview they were operated by a different state agency, the Florida Department of Health. “The Division of Emergency Management was not involved.”
Asked why, Moskowitz said: ”I said, ‘I didn’t want to go there.’”
DeSantis rejected complaints last year about the sites. “There’s some people who are more upset at me for vaccinating seniors than they are at other governors whose policies have killed seniors, and that is a joke,” he said at a February 2021 news conference.
Moskowitz also disclaimed responsibility for another controversial site: the Ocean Reef Club, a 2,500-acre gated community in Monroe County.
It received vaccine doses in January 2021, well ahead of most of the state, the Miami Herald first reported. Ocean Reef Resident Bruce Rauner, a wealthy former Republican governor of Illinois, became a major DeSantis political donor.
DeSantis said last year that he didn’t have anything to do with the decision to route the vaccines to Ocean Reef, saying that site was chosen by Baptist Health South Florida. “That was not a site that we were involved in, in the Keys,” he said. “I want seniors to get shots, I think they did a good job of doing that. We just weren’t involved with it in any way, shape, or form.”
Baptist Health South Florida disputed the governor’s claim that his administration had nothing to do with the decision. The state was involved in the decision and the hospital system assisted only in the logistics of delivering doses already earmarked by the state for Ocean Reef, Baptist Health said in a March 2021 statement.
But Moskowitz said Tuesday it was the health system that was responsible for the Ocean Reef site, which he said “was also not run by the Division of Emergency Management. That site was run by Baptist Health.”
Ben Sorensen, a Fort Lauderdale commissioner and candidate in the Aug. 23 primary, has been heaping criticism on Moskowitz for ties to DeSantis, especially his time as emergency management agency director and role in helping roll out vaccinations last year.
“Jared is a two-time Ron DeSantis appointee, has worked for him for years. He has supported his policies. Jared rolled out COVID policies of the governor,” which Sorensen said included “choosing communities of privilege for vaccinations.”
Protect Our Future, a new Democratic super political action committee that supports candidates it sees as “champions for pandemic prevention,” endorsed Moskowitz on Tuesday. “His leadership as Florida’s director of emergency management was instrumental in accelerating the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and in Congress he’ll work to prevent the next pandemic. This is exactly the type of vision and leadership our country needs,” the organization’s president said in a written statement.
Moskowitz was the DeSantis-appointed emergency management director from January 2019 until May 2021. He was appointed late last year by DeSantis to fill a vacancy on the Broward County Commission.
A lifelong Democrat, Moskowitz is a former elected state representative from northwest Broward and a former Parkland city commissioner. He has been endorsed by more than 100 current and former elected Democrats — ranging from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and progressive state Rep. Anna Eskamani — and Democratic allies including labor unions and anti-gun violence groups.
Sorensen was joined Tuesday in his criticisms by another candidate, Hava Holzhauer, a former Florida director of the Anti-Defamation League, in pointing to his work for DeSantis to discredit Moskowitz’s Democratic bona fides.
“The voters are very seriously wondering about Jared. It is a question that I get when I am on the phone dialing for dollars [seeking campaign contributions]. It is a constant question,” Holzhauer said.
“Another piece of this is you can’t take responsibility for only the good things when you’re involved in a job. So a lot went wrong and continues to go wrong with Florida’s vaccination and handling of the pandemic. A lot went wrong, but somehow my opponent is only responsible for the great pieces,” she said.
As emergency management director, Moskowitz said he brought Democratic values to the table, including taking steps to bring vaccinations to minority communities and underserved communities. “I partnered with 250 Black churches across the state” to deliver vaccines, he said.
Moskowitz defended the overall vaccination effort, with some qualifications.
“I’m not gonna sit here and say batted 1,000. Nobody batted 1,000 in the pandemic. Joe Biden has a great quote. It says, ‘Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
“Florida prioritized seniors. We were one of the first states to do so. The CDC said not to prioritize seniors and 10 days after Florida did [the] CDC, rolled that out to every state and said prioritize seniors,” Moskowitz said.
The first places that got vaccines, he said, were nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Broward and Palm Beach counties. “One of the first areas I went to with the vaccine were Holocaust survivors in their homes. I partnered with Black churches, 250 Black churches, to make sure we had minority access,” he said.
Moskowitz also said he chose places with large numbers of older residents, such as the Wynmoor, Century Village and Kings Point condominium communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties. They are home to large numbers of middle- and lower-income retirees.
“I did go to the Villages. The Villages was a site but it is the largest concentration of seniors. And so we’re focusing on seniors, of course I would go to the Villages,” Moskowitz said.
The Villages, the retirement megalopolis about an hour northwest of Orlando, includes parts of three counties. It is home to a large number of affluent and well-educated residents, and it is a Republican stronghold.
Holzhauer, Moskowitz and Sorensen are the three best known among six Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who isn’t seeking re-election. On Oct. 1, Deutch became CEO of the American Jewish Committee.
Seven Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination.
Moskowitz said the reason Sorensen and Holzhauer are trying to tie him to DeSantis is because their campaigns aren’t catching on. “They’re talking about me because that’s the only way they feel that they can win this race,” he said.
“Let’s be clear: I didn’t vote for Ron DeSantis. I don’t support Ron DeSantis. I’m a Democrat,” Moskowitz said.
He said Andrew Gillum and Gwen Graham, the winner and runner-up in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, along with the Florida Democratic Party, urged him to take the emergency management job “because a Democrat hadn’t run a state agency in 25 years.”
Moskowitz was a public proponent of masking and vaccination even as DeSantis grew more publicly skeptical about the value of those efforts. He said he required masking at the emergency management building and testing. “I was the only agency to do so,” he said.
Moskowitz said Sorensen congratulated him on taking the job, and didn’t raise questions “until he became a candidate.”
“Just being a ‘Democrat’ isn’t good enough,” Holzhauer said. “Jared doesn’t search ‘help wanted’ when he wants a job. He calls his friend Ron DeSantis. He’s trying to distance himself from Ron.”
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Holzhauer also excoriated Moskowitz for describing DeSantis as someone whose “IQ was off the charts” and calling him a “brilliant” person. “I cannot understand how we can use the term brilliant with a person who marginalizes women, who hurts teachers, who hurts minorities. There’s nothing brilliant about our governor.”
Moskowitz said that assessment is “part of the problem that Democrats have.”
Failing to recognize that DeSantis or Republican U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri are brilliant — “that’s what makes them so dangerous” — makes it harder for Democrats to effectively counter them.
“Just because you say someone has a high IQ doesn’t mean you think they have good ideas and good policies,” Moskowitz said.
“They continue to say the governor and I are friends. The governor and I have never have had dinner together. You don’t have friends that you’ve never spent time [with]. I was hired to do a job. I did that job,” Moskowitz said.
This report includes information from Sun Sentinel archives.