North Miami Beach Mayor Anthony DeFillipo caused a stir that shot across Latin America this weekend after he said in an interview Friday that international tourists could come to his city to get the COVID-19 vaccine, adding that “thousands and thousands” had already done so — despite state rules that restrict the vaccine to Florida residents only.
On Monday, he tried to walk back his words, and the city apologized in a statement for “any confusion” the mayor had caused. But by that point, the information had already reached major news sites and WhatsApp chats at home and abroad.
“NORTH MIAMI BEACH OFFERS FREE VACCINES TO INTERNATIONAL TOURISTS TRAVELING TO SOUTH FLORIDA,” read a Facebook post Sunday from the Argentinian news site Infobae. As of Monday afternoon, the post had over 10,000 “likes” and 2,000 shares.
La Prensa in Honduras wrote that DeFilippo “invited tourists” to get their doses “without the risk of getting punished and losing their visa” in the process. La Nación in Argentina reported that North Miami Beach “will open the doors to non-resident foreigners.”
News outlets in Peru, Uruguay and other parts of Latin America, as well as the South Florida TV station Univision 23, also picked up the story over the weekend.
“The City apologizes for the misunderstanding and any confusion it may have caused,” the city said in its statement.
The mayor’s comments came in a live-streamed interview Friday on Facebook with Andrés Julián Rendón, the former mayor of the small city of Rionegro in Colombia, and Colombian writer Lina Cuartas. DeFillipo said in Spanish that anyone with a passport that has a U.S. visa and a local address could get vaccinated in North Miami Beach, which has been home to several pop-up vaccine sites in recent weeks and this past weekend.
“Here in North Miami Beach, we have had a large population of international people who have been able to come with their passports and a local address here, and with that we have been able to give them the vaccine at any age,” DeFillipo said.
The mayor said the tourists’ address in Florida could be that of a hotel or another place where they are staying, or even the address of their home country’s local consulate.
He said in the interview that a local doctor, Luis Suarez, whom he called a “great friend,” has helped him contact U.S. consulates in Honduras, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador to tell tourists they can get vaccinated in North Miami Beach.
In response, Cuartas, the writer, asked DeFillipo: “So you’re saying, in at least North Miami Beach, Colombians can get vaccinated with a tourist visa and a local address of the Miami consulate or of the hotel where they’re staying? Is that the great news that we can spread today?”
DeFilippo replied, again in Spanish: “So far, we have been doing it this way and we have succeeded. We have had thousands and thousands of people who have come through our doors.”
On April 9, the Honduran consulate in Miami thanked DeFillipo on Twitter “for his collaboration with the Honduran community with COVID-19 vaccines,” calling the mayor’s efforts “a great gesture of humanity.”
The precise nature of the city’s collaboration with the Honduran consulate and other Latin American consulates was not immediately clear.
On Monday, DeFillipo told the Miami Herald that the Colombian interviewers “misinterpreted” his statements, and that he was actually referring to people from other countries “who have residency here and papers” and travel back and forth to the United States — though he made no reference to that requirement in the interview Friday.
“It might have been lost in translation,” said DeFillipo, who is not a native Spanish speaker.
State health officials have required proof of Florida residency to get the COVID vaccine since late January, mandating a copy of a valid Florida driver’s license or a valid Florida identification card. For seasonal residents, the state requires two forms of proof of residency, such as a mortgage or lease agreement, a utility bill or a piece of mail.
“On Friday, there was a misunderstanding about the requirements for international visitors who are interested in a vaccine and the process that must be followed,” the city said in a statement. “The Florida Department of Health is the authority … determining eligibility criteria.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and the Florida Division of Emergency Management did not immediately respond to an inquiry Monday about whether the state was aware of the mayor’s comments or any efforts by North Miami Beach to vaccinate non-Florida residents.
Some Florida lawmakers have called on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to loosen the state’s eligibility requirements to ensure that undocumented immigrants can get the vaccine. DeSantis has decried so-called, “vaccine tourism,” saying he doesn’t want tourists and “foreigners” coming to Florida to get their shots.
DeFillipo told the Herald his intentions “are to help as many people as we can.”
“I hope the United States will see the need in other countries and do everything in its power so we can help,” he said.
Vaccination rates among North Miami Beach residents remain relatively low in parts of the city, especially those where the percentage of Black residents is higher than the percentage countywide, according to an el Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald analysis that used population estimates from the U.S. Census and vaccination data provided by Miami-Dade County.
In four of the city’s six ZIP codes, the rate of adults who had received at least one dose as of April 17 was below the overall county rate of 49%. That includes a vaccination rate of 31% in the 33162 ZIP code and 32% in 33169 — both areas where the majority of residents are Black.
Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.