By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly signed four bills into law Thursday from a special legislative session aimed primarily at preventing workers from being required to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Focusing on vaccination mandates pursued by the White House, DeSantis touted the “strongest piece of legislation that’s been enacted anywhere in the country” and said Florida is “respecting people’s individual freedoms.”
“The states are the primary vehicles to protect people’s freedoms, their health, their safety, their welfare, in our constitutional system,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing ceremony at Brandon Honda in the Hillsborough County community of Brandon. “What Biden is doing is not constitutional. There has never been a federal vaccine mandate imposed on the general public.”
DeSantis has spent months battling with the Biden administration about COVID-19 policies, and Thursday’s event was held in a community that shares a name with part of a conservative derogatory slogan about President Joe Biden — “Let’s Go Brandon.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody called the Hillsborough County community “the shining city on the hill representing freedom,” resulting in the first brief round of “Let’s go Brandon” calls during the event.
Some Brandon Honda employees, lined up behind DeSantis, held signs saying “Brandon Florida” and “Freedom has a home here.”
Asked about why Brandon was selected for the bill-signing event, DeSantis, who has referred to the Biden administration as the “Brandon administration,” replied that “Brandon, Florida is a great American city.”
The Republican-controlled House and Senate passed the bills along almost straight party lines Wednesday during the final day of a three-day special session called by DeSantis.
The main bill (HB 1B) allows Florida private-sector workers to avoid vaccination requirements if they provide medical reasons, religious reasons or can demonstrate “COVID-19 immunity.” Also, they can be exempt if they agree to regular COVID-19 testing or agree to wear personal protective equipment. Employers could face fines up to $50,000 per violation if they don’t properly follow the law.
The bill also bars government agencies from requiring workers to be vaccinated. In addition, it reinforces a law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” to ban student mask and vaccination requirements in public schools.
The school part of the bill came after months of legal battling between the state and some school districts that required students to wear masks. Those districts have dropped mask requirements recently as COVID-19 cases have subsided, and districts have not imposed vaccination mandates.
Democrats criticized the new laws and the special session, which they decried as a waste of time and as being about DeSantis’ widely speculated White House ambitions in 2024.
“It’s a disgrace the governor chooses to call a symbol of technological and medical advancement ‘the jab’ to continue scaring people and confusing them about the effectiveness of the vaccine,” House Minority Co-Leader Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, said in a statement. “We need to continue listening to public-health and medical experts to get over this pandemic and truly let Floridians prosper.”
Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said the measures, which also include a bill to start moving away from oversight of worker safety by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, will “gut worker safety and tie small businesses’ hands.”
“This week is yet another charade from power-hungry politicians who care more about scoring points off of one another than they do keeping families and communities safe,” Jones said after the session ended Wednesday.
But House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the bills “send a clear message to the Biden administration and the federal government that Florida stands for freedom.”
Also, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo said the legislation pushes back against a federal belief that “you don’t control your body” and called requiring students to wear masks “spiritual warfare.”
Florida has filed three lawsuits against federal vaccination mandates, including a challenge filed Wednesday in Pensacola in which Moody is seeking to block a directive that workers at hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers be vaccinated.
“We know in our counties in Florida, we are seeing devastating losses of health care professionals already,” Moody said. “This will decimate our ability to provide needed crucial vital health care to Floridians.”
Florida also has challenged vaccination requirements for employees of federal contractors and employees of businesses with 100 or more workers. OSHA announced Wednesday that the rule applying to employers with 100 or more workers is on hold after an order by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The order did not resolve the underlying legal issues in the fight about the vaccination requirement.
After signing the bills Thursday, DeSantis said, “not bad for a couple of weeks’ work.” Republican leaders agreed before the session on the details of the four bills, which went unchanged during committee hearings and floor debates in the House and Senate.
The other bills:
— HB 3B, which creates a public-records exemption related to allegations that employers have violated the law preventing vaccination mandates. The exemption would shield from public release information about investigations into the alleged violations.
— HB 5B, which will start a process that could lead to the state taking control of worker safety and health issues from OSHA. In part, the bill provides $1 million to DeSantis’ offices to work on a plan for picking up the duties of OSHA.
— HB 7B, which removes the authority of the state surgeon general to order vaccinations during public health emergencies.