DeSantis reduced Miami Beach COVID testing out of spite, major says in CBS documentary

A new documentary about Gov. Ron DeSantis delves into whether the governor’s team silenced Florida’s former Surgeon General Scott Rivkees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and pushed to close a testing site on Miami Beach in response to criticism by the mayor.

Released Thursday, the documentary by CBS News Miami’s Jim DeFede broadly details the governor’s rise from a relatively unknown congressman to a national figure on the front lines of the culture wars. Most of the hour-long programs focus on the COVID-19 pandemic as the governor’s launching pad onto the national stage, where he is now a serious candidate in the Republican presidential primary.

“DeSantis became the villain on MSNBC and CNN. But he was the hero on Fox,” former Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes said in the documentary, which also features the Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas.

“And if you’re running for a Republican primary for president of the United States,” Brandes said, “you really don’t care what happens on MSNBC, you care what happens on Fox. He got to be the hero on the one network that matters.”

The Miami Herald reached out to DeSantis’ office for comment but hasn’t received a response.

A targeted test site shutdown?

At the beginning of the pandemic, DeSantis’ positions on public health were largely mirrored by most governors. He stressed precautionary measures like staying home when possible, sometimes wearing masks in public and for a time shutting down much of the state to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

But as anger over mask mandates and business closures grew, DeSantis ordered the ban of mask requirements across the state. He also lifted restrictions on public gatherings earlier than most of his counterparts.

Worried about the spread of the virus in crowded Miami Beach, Major Dan Gelber became a DeSantis foil, frequently appearing on local and national media criticizing the governor.

A healthcare worker collects a COVID-19 test sample after a person used a nasal swab for a self-administered test at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing center at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Wednesday, Nov.  18, 2020, in Miami Beach.

A healthcare worker collects a COVID-19 test sample after a person used a nasal swab for a self-administered test at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing center at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Miami Beach.

The state fired back by moving to close a state-run testing site on Miami Beach, according to Gelber and Jared Moskowitz, the state Director of Emergency Management at the time.

Gelber told DeFede he learned about the effort when Moskowitz called to tell him the governor was upset about his criticism, including a letter he’d sent to DeSantis in September of 2020.

“Jared asked if I had written a critical letter of [Gov. DeSantis]. I said yes,” Gelber wrote in a note to himself memorializing the conversation, according to the documentary. “He said [the governor’s chief of staff] had called him after the letter was publicly pointing it out and directing him to close the entire testing site on [Miami Beach] because of my letter.”

Moskowitz, now a Democratic member of Congress representing parts of South Florida, confirmed to DeFede that DeSantis’ staff was upset about Gelber’s comments and leaned on him to close the testing site.

Moskowitz responded by closing the drive-up portion of the testing site, but leaving open testing for people who walked up to the site on foot, Gelber’s memo stated. Moskowitz, the major noted, said the governor would be “pissed” if he knew about the compromise.

“Of course I pushed back,” Moskowitz said in the documentary. “But at the end of the day I kept the site open, which is what was important.”

Broward Health CEO Shane Strum, who was DeSantis’ chief of staff at the time, denied ordering the shutdown of the site, according to DeFede. Through a Broward Health spokeswoman, Strum denied that the call to Moskowitz ever took place, the documentary states.

Silencing the state’s top expert?

Another chapter of the documentary focuses on DeSantis’ handling of his former top health official.

At an April 2020 press conference in Tallahassee, then-Surgeon General Scott Rivkees suggested social distancing and mask wearing would continue for the foreseeable future, until a vaccine would be available. He was quickly whisked away that day by the governor’s chief spokeswoman — and seemed sidelined throughout the rest of his tenure.

DeSantis in an August 2020 sit-down interview told DeFede that Rivkees was reluctant to speak to reporters because the Department of Health was “treated unfairly” by some media outlets. DeSantis assured DeFede that he could coordinate a time to speak with Rivkees. DeFede says he never heard back after reaching out.

State Surgeon GeneralDr.  Scott Rivkees talks to the media alongside Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during press conference to announce COVID-19 antibody testing, mobile lab at Hard Rock Stadium as the Novel Coronavirus pandemic continues on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Miami Gardens.

State Surgeon GeneralDr. Scott Rivkees talks to the media alongside Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during press conference to announce COVID-19 antibody testing, mobile lab at Hard Rock Stadium as the Novel Coronavirus pandemic continues on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Miami Gardens.

In the documentary, DeFede sat down with Rivkees, who now works at Brown University. Rivkees was cautious — and even avoidant — when talking about his lack of public appearances. However, when asked if DeSantis “got COVID right,” Rivkees said he believed the Department of Health and Division of Emergency Management handled the pandemic correctly.

Rivkees told DeFede that he was never informed that CBS Miami was trying to interview him, despite the governor’s assertions that he would be made available.

“I think the governor likes Dr. Rivkees a lot as a person, but Dr. Rivkees was, I believe, someone who believed that the shutdowns, the mandates were something that worked,” Adrian Lukis, DeSantis’ former chief of staff, told DeFede. “And the governor disagreed with that. It’s essential to have a unity in messaging.”

You can watch the documentary on CBS News Miami’s website

By badas

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