Jared Moskowitz Saw it All
As the pandemic winds down, the former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management opens up
A young man in a perpetual hurry, Jared Moskowitz has been in public life for 15 years, and he’s only 40. Politics has always been in his blood.
Born in Coral Springs, Moskowitz grew up in a political household—his father was a big fundraiser for the Democratic party—and he remembers that Jesse Jackson was the first politician he ever met and that Bill and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were in his family’s home.
Moskowitz, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at George Washington and his law degree from Nova Southeastern. He soon jumped into the political waters, interning for Vice President Al Gore and serving as an elector for then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008. A six-year tenure on the Parkland City Commission came next, and then Moskowitz won his seat in Florida’s House of Representatives, which he held from 2012 to 2019. He resigned in order to be appointed to his Emergency Management role under Gov. Ron DeSantis—an unlikely ally from across the political aisle.
Soon after COVID-19 struck, the new Emergency Management director made some bold moves: For example, he took on the powerful 3M company to secure more masks for Florida, trolling 3M on Twitter. Moskowitz’s intrepid, independent streak earned even greater visibility once the vaccines became available, when he bucked guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to prioritize seniors in the retiree-heavy state.
When SFBW caught up with him, he didn’t hold back.
COMBATTING VACCINE HESITANCY
The first time we spoke, we caught you on an especially fraught day, with the Johnson & Johnson bombshell, in which use of the vaccine was temporarily suspended.
That happened in the morning at 7 a.m., so we immediately had to find out all the places we had J&J and pull it from all the sites and mobile buses. Vaccination starts at 7 so that was a nice logistical mini-crisis, but we were able to respond and pull it off. [Editor’s note: The J&J vaccine pause was lifted on April 24.]
Just another day at the office, right?
We’ve been activated at Level 1 for over 420 days, the longest activation in Florida state history. We wake up every morning since the beginning of this, whether it was getting PPE [protective gear] or making sure that our hospitals didn’t become overwhelmed, and now onto the vaccination. We’ve been trying to save as many lives as possible, to mitigate the damage of COVID-19, then go to bed and wake up and do the whole thing all over again. Every day here is Groundhog Day.
What worries you most about the J&J vaccine being pulled?
My concern is that we’ve seen significant vaccine hesitancy in a bunch of different communities, specifically communities of color—they have preferred the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. So I’m concerned how this may add to an already difficult situation.
What have you done to counter this vaccine hesitancy?
We were the first in the country to partner with the faith-based community and minority community. We’ve worked with over 250 churches in the state of Florida, over 70,000 doses, working with pastors, and we’ve opened up specific sites with- in minority communities, like the one at Overtown, Miami. We made sure that they were walkup sites; we removed the computer. In the early days of the vaccine, in every state, everyone went to digital appointments. That created a disparity not only between the white and minority communities, but between rich and poor. We immediately eliminated the need for appointments at minority sites; we then rolled that out further when FEMA came and wanted to partner with us to open some sites. We were the first ones to tell FEMA: No appointments, walkup only. We were able to pilot that here and then FEMA did that in other states. We’ve also partnered with over 30 food banks where we have vaccinated people, and 110 mobile home parks, vaccinating 14,000 people. We’ve vaccinated 22,000 people in HUD housing and we’ve vaccinated 12,000 homebound seniors, starting with Holocaust survivors. And we’re canvassing, going door-to-door. We’ve knocked on over 350,000 doors, offering the vaccine. And we have 14 mobile buses that go deeper into the community, set up shot and stay for a couple days, no appointments necessary.
How do you combat the vaccine hesitancy among Trump supporters? Are elected officials doing enough to combat this?
No, the answer to that is no. Where you have hesitancy in minority communities, that problem is multifaceted: It’s access— and access can be defined as transportation, education and historical vaccine hesitancy. Political hesitancy—which we’re seeing in rural communities, in red counties—can be combatted by leaders and leadership. No, the answer is that political leaders are not doing enough to combat political hesitancy.
Speaking of vaccine doubters, did you hear that one of the country’s most extreme stories came out of Miami when a local private school, the Centner Academy, forbade vaccinated staff and teachers from “being near” students?
Discrimination of any kind against people who take this pandemic seriously and are taking the vaccine to save people’s lives is disgusting. That’s number one. Number two is if they are worried about the microchips in the vaccine, I can assure them that they are so tiny, you barely even know they’re there. And I hope they’re wearing their tin foil hats in order to keep from activating the listening devices.
One of the school’s founders, Leila Centner, repeated the debunked theory that vaccinated people are able to radiate signals to the reproductive systems of women, claiming that “Even among our own population, we have at least three women with menstrual cycles impacted after having spent time with a vaccinated person.” Do you have a response to that claim?
I think my comment stands for itself. One thing I am not storing in my warehouse is tin foil hats.
A FLIPPED SWITCH
There came a moment in March when it seemed that everyone I know in Miami got the vaccine—like a switch had been flipped. The program is a great success. How did that feel?
Oh, it’s a huge relief. Listen, we felt that huge relief in September, when the trials started, and then in November, when word leaked out about how the trials were going, and big relief in December, when the vaccine started to flow. Obviously, there were frustrating times, where demand dramatically outweighed supply, and there were major missteps by the federal government in their distribution plan for the first five, six weeks of the program. But as soon as the vaccine really started to flow, and we really started to vaccinate seniors in major numbers, you knew you were saving lives with every shot that went into every arm. I have employees who’ve been stuck in this building for over 400 days. Folks here are exhausted, they’ve sacrificed—they’re not paid enough to do what they do. For all the people—not just those who work here, but firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, all the first responders who’ve been dealing with this as part of their profession—it’s a huge relief.
Everyone I know here who has gotten the shot experienced such efficiency and compassion.
I appreciate that. Obviously, you wouldn’t hear that if you were picking up the newspaper that’s trying to stay out of bankruptcy [that is, The Miami Herald]. We’re not perfect; everyone is doing this for the first time. All the experts who managed the Spanish Flu are no longer around. We feel that we’ve done a good job in the state of Florida if you compare us to Texas, New York, California—the other states our size. But there are no winners—we’ve had over 30,000 who have died. Those families are forever broken—empty chairs at tables, empty rooms in houses. Families couldn’t be with their loved ones in the hospitals, couldn’t be with them in their final moments, couldn’t have proper funerals. The emotional, mental, financial toll of what we’ve all experienced in the past year is immeasurable, incalculable.
As a Democrat in Florida, how did you end up in such a politically perilous position?
Listen, when they came to me with this opportunity, my initial reaction was no—for a lot of reasons: one—I had to leave my current job; two—I had to leave my family; and three— obviously, I had to work for a guy who has different policy positions that I have. But quite frankly, I talked to a lot of my Democratic friends—I talked to [former Tallahassee mayor] Andrew Gillum, [former Florida congresswoman] Gwen Graham, a lot of state senators, state representatives, and even the party—and their answer was, “Hell, if they’re going to give you a whole agency, especially an agency that’s not political, especially an agency that helps a lot of people, why wouldn’t you take it?” And coming off the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting less than 12 months before DeSantis and I met, that still weighed heavily on me—the new role was an opportunity to help a lot of people.
In your mind, how are the tragic shooting and pandemic related?
I did a lot of good in the legislature—I got the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act passed, which is the first gun safety act the state has passed in over two decades, got that done with a Republican House and a Republican Senate, with a Republican governor. No easy feat: raising the age you can buy guns from 18-21, red flag laws, banning bump stocks, hundreds of millions of dollars in school safety. This was what pushed me to take on the new role. This agency—historically, and still is, quite frankly—is not a partisan agency. We don’t do partisan things here, and so I’ve tried to make sure we’ve kept that balance. But, yes, you’re correct: I found myself, what is, by far, the most political disaster of modern times. No disaster has ever been politicized like this one, nothing on this scale. No doubt the previous president did not do the country any service by politicizing this disaster, and then obviously, the response from the other party and the media set off a ticking time bomb of politicization. My hope is that future disasters don’t see the same politics that this disaster has. When a hurricane comes, it doesn’t pick Democratic or Republican households. The whole area suffers simultaneously. We’re used to seeing neighbor helping neighbor. Nobody asks for their party registration when they’re coming to rescue you.
You made a controversial move in prioritizing seniors over essential workers. Tell me about that.
Seniors were 80 percent of the deaths in Florida. We were one of the first states to go to 65 and older. We did that against CDC guidance and [Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] guidance. We were criticized for it, but again, we did it because the data showed that 80 percent of our deaths were 65 and older. The first thing you want to do is stop people from dying; you want to stop people from going into the hospital. You want to go to the highest risk category. And we have 4.3 million seniors in the state. For a time, we were number 1 in vaccinating seniors—we had vaccinated more seniors than any other state. Almost 80 percent of our seniors are now vaccinated and we got to that number faster than anybody else.
It sounds like Israel’s strategy.
We did a lot of things that Israel did. We also instituted the Israeli strategy when it came to using extra doses. If we had extra doses but were out of appointments, we vaccinated anybody who was willing to take the vaccine, regardless of age, to make sure we didn’t have wasted doses.
What’s the next step for you? Private sector? Political office?
I envision a very long nap, can’t tell you how long it will be. When I took this job, I knew that my family and kids would sacrifice their time with me, but I based that off previous disasters. There’s nothing to base this off of. The amount of time I’ve missed with them over the past 14 months is not something I ever contemplated. I have young kids, 7 and 4. I’m excited to come home and spend time with my family. As far as my future political career, I think the days of planning your political career are over. The politics of yesteryear were about planning, waiting in line, it’s this person’s turn—I think all of that is gone and done. If I feel I can help the community, I want to be engaged. I got elected when I was 25, so I’ve done 15 years of public service. I’ve put my community’s families first, the state’s families first, and now it’s time to put my family first.