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Florida special session begins taking up vaccine and mask mandates

Florida lawmakers are returning to Tallahassee to take up a slate of bills that would push back against the federal government’s vaccine mandates and limit local government authority to require COVID-19 immunizations.

Florida lawmakers are returning to Tallahassee to take up a slate of bills that would push back against the federal government’s vaccine mandates and limit local government authority to require COVID-19 immunizations.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has been engaged in a game of whack-a-mole with local municipalities and school districts over vaccine and mask mandates.

RELATED: Special session proposals take aim at COVID vaccine and mask mandates

He tried to ban school districts from requiring students to wear face coverings without letting parents opt out — a move that triggered lawsuits and fines and caused the federal government to jump into the fray.

The governor also tried to curb vaccine mandates by local governments and threatened to fine them for firing unvaccinated workers. Leon County government bucked that effort — catching a $3.5 million from the state — and garnering a target by the governor who recently called out the county.

“We had Leon County who fired a bunch of people. We’ve had others say they’re going to do it. I think they’re wrong on that law, I think we’d win in litigation. But we’re going to make it even clearer on that,," DeSantis said.

The governor is following through on his promise to sue the federal government after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued vaccine rules for businesses with 100 or more employees, requiring such workers to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

“This is a rule that is not consistent with the Constitution and not legally authorized through congressional statute. The federal government can’t just unilaterally impose medical policy under the guise of workplace regulation," he said.   

DeSantis has also followed through on his promise to call a special session of the Legislature to curb vaccine mandates from governments and businesses. He originally threatened to strip liability protections from businesses that impose such mandates.

But the proposals that have rolled out ahead of Monday’s gathering don’t go as far as the governor originally implied. In the case of businesses, they can still issue vaccine requirements but need to allow for religious, medical and other types of exemptions. Local governments like Leon County would be banned from requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID.

Then there’s a proposal to establish a state-run agency to regulate safety issues at businesses. Right now, Florida participates in OSHA, but to establish its own agency the state would have to ask OSHA for approval.

State Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach, the Democratic House Co-Minority Leader, notes that no state has left OSHA in decades and that the process would take years to accomplish.

"That’s either an admission COVID will be going on for years and years … or it means that this is a dog-and-pony show to whip up a potential lawsuit with the Biden aministration," said Jenne.

One area the governor leaves unaddressed is a federal requirement that health care facilities that receive federal Medicaid and Medicare money must vaccinate their workers. While the proposed bills don't explicitly name health care industries, they would still be impacted by the proposals. Hospitals and nursing home leaders say they're watching to see what the final result of the special session will be.

Jenne notes DeSantis and other Republican leaders turned down efforts to call a special session in the early days of the pandemic, as businesses faced financial hits, workers lost jobs and uncertainty about evictions was at its peak. He says the vaccine special session is hypocritical.

“We’ve done nothing to stop the spread of COVID in this state. Nothing to help small businesses. And … if 60,000 people died in a hurricane it would be trauma beyond belief. But because so many of these deaths happened behind closed doors and dark hospital rooms, it doesn’t have the same impact. But Floridians need to remember 60,000 Floridians died and shame on us if we don’t use their sacrifice to make our state a better place.”

In Jenne’s view and that of most Florida Democrats, the special session is designed to raise the governor’s profile amid chatter that DeSantis would be a 2024 presidential contender. The governor has filed to run for reelection in 2022.

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