Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed what he called “the strongest piece of legislation that’s been enacted anywhere in the country” in opposition to coronavirus vaccination mandates on workers.
Flanked by Republican legislative leaders, DeSantis officially made Florida the first state with a law that imposes fines on businesses and hospitals that require inoculation against Covid-19 without exemptions or alternatives. DeSantis signed the legislative package into law a day after Republican lawmakers passed his anti-mandate agenda during a fast-moving special session that was largely divided along party lines.
“Leadership means you get in there and you do what you can to stand by people,” DeSantis said. “And that’s exactly what we did today.”
The steps taken by Florida this week represent a significant escalation in the fight between Republican-led states and the federal government over President Joe Biden’s push to get the country inoculated against the coronavirus, and they reflect just how politicized the pandemic has become. DeSantis, who himself is vaccinated against the coronavirus and once championed the vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing mass deaths, has tapped into the growing anger over public health restrictions and positioned himself as a foil to Biden.
It was quickly noted on social media that DeSantis held the bill signing at a car dealership on the outskirts of Brandon, Florida, widely seen as a nod to the anti-Biden “Let’s go, Brandon” chant gaining popularity among conservatives. Asked about the location of the event, DeSantis, who is seen as a potential 2024 presidential contender, smiled and said, “I think Brandon is a great American city.”
Many people in the crowd Thursday wore red “Operation Freedom of Choice” T-shirts, while others yelled their opposition to the federal mandates with comments like, “The vaccine is the virus.” Members of DeSantis’ staff passed out signs that said, “Don’t Tread on Florida,” and “Freedom Has a Home Here.” The state’s new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, an opponent of masks and skeptic of the efficacy of the vaccines, was given a hero’s welcome and posed for pictures with DeSantis supporters after the governor had left. Also in attendance were Florida’s House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson.
With the signing Thursday, all Florida entities – including businesses, hospitals and governments – must allow workers to opt out of a vaccine mandate through a medical or religious exemption, proof of natural immunity or by submitting to regular testing for Covid-19. (The law states that it will be up to the state Department of Health “to establish standards for competent medical evidence that the employee has immunity to COVID-19,” and it is not clear how it would do that, as having recovered from infection does not make people immune to another infection.) If they violate the new law, businesses with fewer than 100 employees face fines of $10,000 per infraction and businesses with 100 or more employees face fines of $50,000.
The law takes direct aim at the vaccine mandates Biden has sought for workers through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and for health care employees through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Under those mandates, businesses face penalties if they don’t require vaccination or regular testing as a condition of employment.
Additionally, the new law prohibits school districts from having mask requirements and from quarantining healthy students who may have been exposed to the virus.
Lawmakers also approved a $5 million war chest to fund the state’s legal battles against the Biden administration. Florida is already one of 26 states suing to prevent the federal vaccine mandate from forcing employers to require vaccinations and DeSantis announced Thursday that the state will join another lawsuit to block the forced vaccination of health care workers.
“Many nurses could lose their job,” DeSantis said. “So you’re actually making the hospitals short-staffed as a result of the mandate. So how does this make any sense?”