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Leon is the first county fined by the state after firing employees over its vaccine mandate

 County Administrator Vince Long (center) at the county's emergency COVID-19 meeting on Sept. 7, 2021. Long has defended the legality of the county's employee vaccination mandate.
County Administrator Vince Long, center, attends the Leon County emergency COVID-19 meeting on Sept. 7, 2021. Long has defended the legality of the county's employee vaccination mandate.

More than a week after Leon County fired 14 employees for refusing to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, the county is facing $3.5 million in fines from the state.

Florida has issued its first fine to a county it says violated a new state law banning coronavirus vaccine mandates and for firing fired 14 workers who failed to get the shots.

Leon County is facing $3.5 million in fines for forcing employees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

The fines come after the county refused to rescind its vaccine requirement, even though state health officials warned it violated a recent state law that prohibits governments from requiring anyone to show vaccination proof "to gain access to, entry upon, or service from their operations."

Last week, 14 employees who refused to comply with the county's vaccine requirement lost their jobs as a result.

The Florida Department of Health sent a letter to the county last week requesting a list of every person who had provided proof of vaccination or had lost their job as a result of the policy.

The department subsequently found 714 violations, carrying a penalty of $5,000 each. The total amount the county is facing is $3,570,000.

On July 28, the county issued a vaccine mandate, requiring all employees to get the shot by Oct. 1. The only exceptions were for those who had medical or religious exemptions.

County Administrator Vince Long has expressed confidence the policy isn't in violation of state law. In an interview last month, Long said if the state attempts to force the county to pay fines, it would "afford the county due process at that time."

Long echoed those sentiments in a statement Tuesday after receiving notice of the fines. He wrote the county "strongly contends that our employee vaccination requirement was not only completely legally justifiable, but it was a necessary and responsible action to take to keep our employees safe, protect the public, and ensure our readiness as a frontline response organization."

The notice gives the county 30 days after a final order is issued to pay the fines.

A state health department statement sent Tuesday also highlights the fact that Gainesville city officials rescinded their vaccine mandate after the department warned them they were violating the law and could face fines.

The statement also quoted Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying: "It is unacceptable that Leon County violated Florida law, infringed on current and former employees' medical privacy, and fired loyal public servants because of their personal health decisions."

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.