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DeSantis calls for a special legislative session to combat vaccine mandates

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Governor's Office
via Facebook
Former Orange County battalion Chief Stephen Davis joined Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press conference in Clearwater on Thursday. Davis says he was fired for following an "unlawful order" of not disciplining employees who refused to follow the county's vaccine mandate.

Gov. Ron DeSantis says he will call state lawmakers back to work early to pass legislation to combat coronavirus vaccine mandates enacted by businesses.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is calling for a special legislative session next month to pass legislation that would protect workers who refuse to comply with COVID-19 vaccine requirements and bolster the state’s efforts to fight those policies in court.

DeSantis announced the plan in Cleaerwater on Thursday, about a month after President Joe Biden unveiled a requirement for all federal workers, including contract employees, to get vaccinated. The mandate, through the Occupational Safety Hazard Administration, also applies to companies with more than 100 employees.

The regular legislative session is slated to begin in January.

“A lot of these deadlines are coming up between now and the end of the year,” DeSantis said. “Some of these people are going to get fired.”

Some local governments and businesses have already defied a statewide ban on vaccine requirements and fired employees who refused to get a COVID shot.

“You have a federal government that is very much trying to use the heavy hand of government to force a lot of these injections and you have a lot of folks that actually believe that that decision should be theirs,” DeSantis said. “We believe in having basic medical freedom and individual choice - and that your right to earn a living should not be contingent upon COVID shots.”

DeSantis is calling for legislation to guarantee jobless benefits to people who are fired for refusing to comply with vaccination requirements. He also wants policy that would strip away COVID-19 liability protections for businesses that put in place vaccination mandates.

He’s also proposing legislation that would make it easier for employees who have an adverse reaction to the shot to sue their employers for forcing them to get it.

“If anyone has been forced to do an injection and has an adverse reaction, that business should be liable for any damages,” he said.

DeSantis said the legislation is also needed to bolster his administration’s efforts to fight vaccine requirements in court.

“This would’ve been something that we would’ve done last legislative session if I honestly thought it was something that was going to get this far,” he said. “We would’ve made it a big priority.”

DeSantis is also calling on lawmakers to strengthen the parental bill of rights to fight mask mandates.

Appearing with DeSantis were people who lost their jobs over vaccine mandates, including Stephen Davis, who was terminated Tuesday from his position as a battalion chief with Orange County Fire Rescue.

Davis wouldn't discipline employees who refused to follow the county's mandate that all employees get vaccinated. The department says he failed to follow a direct order.

“I was terminated for what I believe to be an unlawful order,” Davis said.

He said employees in his battalion told him they had been "unable to sleep, worried about what would happen if they didn’t get a shot. If they were mandated, would they be able to provide for their families? Would it affect their medical coverage?”

County Mayor Jerry Demings said later Thursday that the policy was negotiated with the firefighters' union and stood by Davis' dismissal. A union member says Davis didn't discipline the firefighters because some had already been vaccinated and others had applied for religious exemptions.

Almost four dozen department employees who don't want to be vaccinated have sued the county, calling the mandate “unlawful, unconstitutional and highly invasive.”

Democrats were quick to criticize the Republican governor’s plan.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo compared DeSantis' actions to those of a dictator. Taddeo on Monday announced she would be running for governor in 2022.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, another Democrat running for governor, called the move a "purely self-serving political ploy by the governor."

Some Democrats said the special session was a stunt to help a possible DeSantis presidential bid in 2024.

“I think this is a politically motivated and calculated move on behalf of the governor to promote his own ambitions for running for president,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell.

“The motive is not about moving our state forward during the worst pandemic in modern world history,” said State Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, during a House minority caucus press call on Thursday. “It’s about controlling the narrative and playing to a political base.”

Democrats also criticized on the fact that DeSantis signed COVID-19 liability shields for businesses into law in March and is now threatening to rescind those protections.

“Now a complete change of tune,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani. “He wants there to be the opportunity for litigation based on businesses trying to follow science and do the right thing.”

State Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls backed up the governor’s calls for a special session. They also floated the possibility of withdrawing the state from OSHA.

“We believe that by doing so, Florida will have the ability to alleviate onerous federal regulations placed on employers and employees,” the statement reads.

The OSHA requirement gives federal workers until Nov. 22 to get fully vaccinated, meaning they must receive their final dose by Nov. 8 or submit to weekly tests. Federal contract workers have until Dec. 8 to get fully vaccinated. New hires must show vaccination proof to gain employment after those dates.

Meantime, Republican state Sen. Keith Perry filed two bills to block mask mandates and vaccine requirements about the same time DeSantis appeared in Clearwater. Both bills are likely to be superseded by a special session.

“People are losing their jobs and their livelihood today based on a forced medical procedure,” said Perry, whose district includes Alachua, Putnam and parts of Marion counties.

Information from WFSU's Valerie Crowder, WMFE's Joe Byrnes, the Associated Press and News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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