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Hundreds protest COVID vaccine mandates at Florida Capitol

 Hundreds gathered outside the Florida Capitol building on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 to protest COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates.
Hundreds gathered outside the Florida Capitol building on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, to protest COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates.

The rally took place on the second day of a special legislative session to pass a package of bills that push back on federal vaccine and mask nadates.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Florida State Capitol building on Tuesday to protest vaccine and mask mandates.

"We're all out here to say that we're against mandated actions against our bodily autonomy," said Rachel Rodriguez, an attorney representing a group of Orange County firefighters suing over their local government's employee coronavirus vaccination requirement.

The rally took place on the second day of a special legislative session to pass a package of bills that target a federal rule to require workers at businesses with 100 employees or more to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit weekly negative coronavirus tests.

Rodriguez and her husband brought to the rally a sign displaying the words: “I’m not anti-vaccine; I’m anti-Mandate.”

“What you do to your body, what you put into your body ought to be the choice you make — perhaps with advice from your doctor. The issue here is that governmental authorities should not be taking that away.”

Rally goers cheered on the Republican-controlled legislature's efforts to curb mask and vaccine requirements in the public and private sector.

Bills under consideration this week include a measure that would make it easier for private sector workers to opt out of their employer's vaccination requirement.

The bill would allow workers to get an exemption for showing proof of prior COVID-19 infection; agreeing to wear personal protective equipment; providing a doctor's note for a medical condition, including pregnancy or planning to become pregnant; religious reasons; or submitting regular coronavirus tests.

The bill would charge the state Department of Health with working out the details of the exemptions, including how frequently employees must submit COVID-19 tests. The measure also requires employers to pay for those tests.

Private employers that don't follow the state policy would face fines for every violation, even small businesses with a few employees would become subject to the policy.

Another measure under consideration would direct the governor to craft a proposal for a state workplace safety and health plan. Lawmakers say the intent of that bill is to remove the state from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. However, they've also acknowledged that any plan that they put in place must first get OSHA's approval, a process that could take years.

Right now, OSHA oversees the state's private sector workers. Local and state public sector employees aren't covered under the plan.

Lawmakers are also looking at amending the Parents' Bill of Rights to make it easier for parents to sue school districts that adopt mask requirements and removing public records exemptions for worker complaints against employers who fail to comply with the proposed state COVID-19 vaccination exemptions.

At the rally, protesters booed the Biden administration's efforts to boost the country's vaccination rate. They also cheered for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who's widely considered a possible presidential frontrunner.

"I want to take a moment and thank our governor — the greatest governor in the United States of America," said the rally's first speaker Randy Osborne of the Florida Eagle Forum, a conservative organization that seeks to promote self-governance. "This governor has stood up and said we are going to get some legislation passed."

DeSantis called lawmakers into special session after the federal OSHA rule for private employee vaccinations was issued on Nov. 4.

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.