Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t get everything he wanted this week from state lawmakers in his campaign against federal coronavirus vaccine mandates.
But in a fast-moving three-day special session criticized by Democrats as “political theater,” the Republican-controlled state legislature on Wednesday handed DeSantis plenty of firepower to pressure businesses and hospitals not to go along with President Joe Biden’s push to get the country’s workforce inoculated.
Acting mostly along party lines, the Florida House and Senate passed a package of four bills protecting workers who remain defiant against Covid-19 vaccinations. Once signed by DeSantis – which is expected in the coming days – Florida will become the first state with a law imposing fines on companies that require a Covid-19 vaccination as a condition of employment.
DeSantis, a first-term governor often mentioned as a future presidential contender, wasted little time claiming victory.
“I look forward to signing legislation that will protect their jobs and the jobs of all Floridians who are facing unjust termination due to heavy-handed mandates!” the Republican leader wrote on Twitter Wednesday afternoon, before the Senate had voted.
Unsaid by DeSantis is how far the final package was from the more hard-line measures he proposed when he first floated the idea of a special session last month. DeSantis had called for a blanket ban on vaccine mandates and vowed punitive penalties, threatening to pull state protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits from companies that adhered to Biden’s mandate.
Far from a ban on mandates, businesses can require vaccination as a condition of employment if workers are allowed to opt-out through a medical or religious exemption, proof of natural immunity or by submitting to regular testing for Covid-19. The measure, one of four vaccine-related bills approved in the span of a few hours Wednesday, passed the Florida House on a vote of 78 to 39 and the Senate 24 to 14.
Still, many companies and most health care providers in Florida now face an expensive choice: follow the Biden administration’s new vaccination policies and the advice of public health experts and risk hefty state fines, or side with the state government and face possible financial penalties from the federal government.
Though the Biden administration would also allow workplaces to offer testing as an alternative to the shot, it’s not clear if the federal guidelines for testing frequency are more onerous than Florida would allow.
In the days and hours leading up to the vote, Democrats offered dozens of amendments to soften the legislation and protect people with health conditions from working in unvaccinated environments. But Republicans, acting on a tight schedule, swiftly rejected them and sent the bills to DeSantis’ desk without changes.
Democrats accused Republicans of choosing to support DeSantis’ political ambitions over the health and safety of Florida residents. DeSantis called lawmakers back to Tallahassee after Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, a fellow Republican and potential White House hopeful, issued an executive order that prohibited any entity from requiring a Covid-19 vaccine and instituted a fine of up to $1,000.
“This allows him to whip his base up,” said Florida state House Minority Leader Evan Jenne.
In addition to approving vaccine-related fines, lawmakers also approved a $5 million warchest to pay for ongoing and future legal fights against the Biden administration’s new vaccine rules.
Florida is one of 26 states suing the Biden administration over its private employer vaccine mandate. Another six states have taken the federal government to court over new immunization requirements for hospitals. The warchest means Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody now has the resources to consider challenging Biden on that front as well, said state House Speaker Chris Sprowls.
Just like Biden’s vaccination mandates, the new measures are expected to face legal challenges from workers and business leaders who believe vaccinations are necessary to bring the nearly two-year pandemic to an end. More than 60,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Florida, though the state has seen a sharp decline in cases after its catastrophic summer surge and it now has one of the lowest infection rates in the country.
But Sprowls expressed confidence that the state will be victorious in its lawsuit against Biden’s vaccine mandates.
On Tuesday, a ping-pong ball lottery put the lawsuits against Biden’s vaccine mandate targeting employers with more than 100 employees into the hands of the Ohio-based 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
The US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has halted implementation of the mandate for non-health care workers. Though the Biden administration has urged businesses to move forward with the rules, Sprowls said the state’s new rules for vaccine mandates “will be the law of the land in Florida.”
Florida lawmakers also laid the groundwork for Florida to exit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with enforcing Biden’s mandate on businesses. In its place, Florida would have to create a state-based workplace regulatory agency.
It’s not clear if such a maneuver will affect the federal government’s ability to enforce vaccine compliance. The Biden administration would have approval over Florida’s new state-based regulatory plan and federal law requires states’ enforcement to be as rigorous as OSHA’s.
“They can’t say, ‘We’re a state plan and we’re not going to have a COVID standard,’ ” said Tim Fisher, a director at the American Society for Safety Professionals.