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DeSantis signs bill banning vaccine mandates

Vaccine mandate.jpg
Rebecca Blackwell
A man holds a sign as several hundred anti-mandate demonstrators rally outside the Florida Capitol during a special legislative session on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Tallahassee

Rebuking the Biden administration, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature on Wednesday passed a measure that seeks to prevent workers from being required to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill Thursday.

The votes by the House and Senate came on the third day of a special legislative session called by DeSantis, who has sparred for months with the White House about COVID-19 policies. But the outcome of the votes was never in doubt — Republican leaders agreed on the bill (HB 1B) before the session started and walled it off from any changes.

“We trust the individual Floridians to make the best decision for themselves and their children, more than we trust the federal government,” Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, said before the House voted 78-39 along almost straight party lines to pass the bill.

Democrats criticized the bill — and the decision to hold a special session —- as a political ploy by Republicans and said it will not help curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been here all week debating this in a way that is only prolonging this pandemic and making it harder for us to get shots in arms and dollars in people’s pockets, so that we can get on with our lives,” Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, said.

Several hours after the House passed the bill Wednesday, the Senate voted 24-14 along party lines to give final approval.

The special session was driven, at least in part, by Biden administration moves aimed at requiring workers at large businesses, federal contractors and in the health-care industry to be vaccinated.

Under the bill, Florida private-sector workers could avoid vaccination requirements if they provide medical reasons, religious reasons or can demonstrate “COVID-19 immunity.” Also, they could 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 legislation also will bar 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.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, argued that blocking schools from being able to mandate such COVID-19 mitigation measures would aggravate a teacher shortage in the state.

“Are we putting teachers at risk? And I am concerned that we have a teacher shortage. We have people taking early retirement. We have shortages in terms of people who will not drive our school buses because they are in that enclosed environment with young people who don’t have to wear masks, who don’t have to be vaccinated,” Thompson said.

But Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, defended the prohibition on school mask requirements.

“I sit there and I question our school boards for mandating masks for our children,” Caruso said. “They say ‘Well, physically, it’s going to protect them from the (virus),’ when they fail to recognize the mental health issues that masks cause.”