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Special Olympics drops its COVID vaccine requirement after Florida threatens a $27.5 million fine

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Orlando is hosting the Special Olym[ics USA Games this week. However, state law bars businesses from requiring proof of a COVID vaccination, with a $5,000 fine for each person.

The Special Olympics has dropped a COVID vaccine mandate for its USA Games in Orlando this week after Florida moved to fine the organization $27.5 million for violating a state law against such requirements.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday announced the organization had removed the requirement for its competition, which runs through June 12.

The Florida Department of Health notified the Special Olympics in a letter Thursday that the organization would be fined for 5,500 violations of state law for requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination for attendees or participants.

Florida law bars businesses from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination. Under the law, the health department can issue a $5,000 fine for each person required to show proof of vaccination.

The organization's vaccine mandate was rolled back just before the start of the games.

In a statementon its website, the Special Olympics said people who were registered but unable to participate because of the mandate can now attend.

Athletes still need to complete a Healthy Athletes screening that includes testing for COVID before they can compete.

DeSantis is applauding the move, saying some athletes’ disabilities might make it unsafe for them to get the vaccine, effectively barring them from competing.

“We do not think it’s fair or just to be marginalizing some of these athletes based on a decision that has no bearing on their ability to compete with honor and integrity. And so, this was important that we engaged in this,” he said.

DeSantis said that for some athletes this will be the only chance they ever get to compete in a Special Olympics games, and he hoped the original vaccine mandate didn’t deter too many athletes from signing up and making plans to participate.

“This is a really significant event for these athletes and in Florida we want all of them to be able to compete,” he said.

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo said the state had worked with Special Olympics officials for six months to resolve the vaccination issue.

“How can you force people to take a vaccine in order to stop transmission when that vaccine is not effective at stopping transmission?” Ladapo said during an appearance with DeSantis in Orlando.

Information from WMFE's Danielle Prieur, the Associated Press and News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.