As Florida Republicans, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, escalate their fight against President Joe Biden’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, they are testing a new method to support resisters: giving taxpayer money to the unvaccinated.
Florida is one of a handful of states that now ensures people who refuse the shot remain eligible for unemployment benefits if they lose their job over their stance. Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have done the same.
And DeSantis, one of the leading Republican voices against federal vaccine requirements, wants to go even further. He says his state may pay the fines of businesses that snub the federal vaccine mandate – and he’ll do it with coronavirus relief aid signed into law by Biden.
“This is an important fight,” DeSantis recently told business leaders. “And it’s a fight we’re happy to join.”
It was only a few months ago that a majority of Americans lived in a state that offered people cash or other freebies if they got vaccinated against the coronavirus. Democratic and Republican governors in more than a dozen states launched lotteries, promising the newly vaccinated a chance at a prize of $1 million and sometimes more.
But the push by DeSantis to use taxpayer money to compensate people who defy vaccine mandates is the latest example of the fast-changing politics around vaccines and it could become a template for other Republican leaders looking to align themselves with an increasingly vocal minority of Americans refusing to get the shot. DeSantis, a potential 2024 contender and one of his party’s most popular figures, has often set the tone for other Republican governors in responding to the pandemic and pushing back against the Biden administration.
If more states follow, it could dull Biden’s sharpest tool – the threat of lost income – in his push to encourage vaccinations. The growing resistance has created more uncertainty about America’s response to the pandemic amid a winter surge causing another wave of hospitalizations in the north and mountain west. Meanwhile, a new coronavirus variant, Omicron, has entered the US, officials confirmed Wednesday, rattling markets and leaders.
Crystal Watson, a professor of public health risk assessment at Johns Hopkins University, worries these states are giving people a reason not to get vaccines and creating a safe haven for the virus at a time when the United States should be turning the corner against the pandemic.
“The longer we have high levels of circulation in our communities, the more variants that are worrisome we’ll see,” said Crystal Watson, a professor of public health risk assessment at Johns Hopkins University. “From a scientific perspective, from a public health perspective, creating support for people who won’t get vaccinated, that’s really damaging.”
‘You should be incentivizing people to make good decisions’
Amid Florida’s fast-moving special session on vaccine mandates last month, some Democrats took issue with lawmakers carving out benefits for the unvaccinated. They noted that five months prior, DeSantis, like many Republican leaders, had cut off emergency aid to the unemployed in an effort to jump start the job market.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, offered an amendment that would ensure unemployment benefits would go to workers who felt unsafe at work and left a job because their employer wasn’t requiring vaccines. In the Republican-dominated legislature, her amendment was ruled out of order.
“They didn’t even want to hear it,” Eskamani said. “These are the same Republicans who say they want small government and let people decide for themselves. But not only are you incentivizing policies that are anti-public health, but you’re rewarding them for it. You should be incentivizing people to make good decisions.”
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said it’s wrong to characterize Florida’s new unemployment law as a taxpayer-funded incentive for the unvaccinated. She said the bill was clarifying what is already the law in Florida, which states an employee is eligible for unemployment benefits if they are fired as a result of an unlawful policy. DeSantis signed a bill that outlawed strict vaccine mandates.
“Most people would rather keep their jobs and regular incomes, and that was always the objective of the special session,” Pushaw said. “I can’t imagine anyone wants to be fired over a personal medical decision to receive unemployment assistance that is generally less than their former income.”
The Biden administration declined to comment. Watson, the Johns Hopkins professor, said these new laws were “very contradictory to the messaging public health is putting out, which is based on science and evidence.”
“It’s really dangerous from that perspective,” Watson said.
After signing Iowa’s bill, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement that it was a matter of ensuring health decisions remain personal.
“I believe the vaccine is the best defense against COVID-19 and we’ve provided Iowans with the information they need to determine what’s best for themselves and their families,” Reynolds said, “but no Iowan should be forced to lose their job or livelihood over the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Carrots vs. sticks
Several studies found state lotteries made little difference in the push against vaccine hesitancy. By October, faced with stagnating vaccination rates, the Biden administration moved on from carrots to sticks.
Biden bet most businesses would put in place vaccine mandates for their workers if threatened by fines by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Employees, it was believed, would ultimately choose a safe, effective vaccine over losing their jobs.
In some parts of the country, the idea has worked as planned. More than 92% of the federal workforce has received at least one dose of the vaccine after Biden made immunization a condition of employment, the Office of Management and Budget said late last month. Many cities, including New York, have credited vaccine mandates for a sharp rise in inoculation among public employees.
But around the country, Republican leaders have pushed back. Eleven states have banned vaccine mandates or are forcing businesses and governments to offer exemptions, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Florida, for example, has made it so almost anyone can get an exemption on religious or medical grounds, through testing or by demonstrating a previous medical exemption.
The Biden administration, already facing legal headwinds over its vaccine mandates, is now reckoning with widespread uncertainty in the business community over how to proceed. Last week, Disney announced it would stop mandating vaccines for its Florida workers after DeSantis signed a law requiring employers to allow vaccine exemptions.
Speaking from Air Force One last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Disney’s decision highlighted how DeSantis was moving the country in the wrong direction in its fight against coronavirus.
“They’re based in Florida, and obviously the governor there has consistently taken steps to take steps backwards as it relates to fighting the pandemic, not forward,” Psaki said.
OSHA has paused enforcement of Biden’s new vaccine mandate for private businesses with 100 or more workers after a federal appeals court halted implementation. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Missouri on Monday partially blocked another federal vaccine mandate for health care workers and on Tuesday a federal judge in contact took similar action against Biden’s mandate for federal contractors.
The Biden administration has encouraged companies to abide by the mandates while the courts sort out the legal questions. DeSantis has urged companies in Florida to do the opposite, or they could face fines up to $50,000 for violating the state’s new law.
Even if the courts side with Biden, DeSantis told the National Federation of Independent Business last month he has a plan to combat any OSHA penalties.
“If it gets to the point where they’re trying to enforce, you know, my view would be, don’t comply, and we would support the legislature taking some of the stimulus money and using it to pay off the fines the businesses incur for not complying,” DeSantis said.
Pushaw said that this idea was “an option” but added it “isn’t necessary at this time” because of the action taken by federal courts to date. The US Treasury Department said it is monitoring all proposed expenditures of COVID-19 relief funds and added that any program that would undermine efforts to stop the spread of the virus would not be permissible.
DeSantis has also dangled $5,000 bonuses to lure unvaccinated police officers to his state, though lawmakers must first approve. While any officer that relocates to Florida would be eligible for the bonus, regardless of vaccination status, he has specifically pitched his proposal to police in cities that are mandating their public workers get inoculated.
“If you’re not being treated well,” DeSantis told Fox News in October, “we’ll treat you better here.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the political party of the governor of Kansas.