• The San Juan Daily Star

Florida curtails virus mandates, reflecting wishes of vaccine skeptics

Hundreds of anti-mandate protesters rallied outside the Florida Capitol this week.

By Patricia Mazzei

Early this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis crisscrossed Florida promoting coronavirus vaccines, visiting retiree communities and hospitals, and celebrating people who got their shots.

But it was a remarkably different picture this week, when Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez, was a prominent speaker at a rally organized by anti-vaccination activists on the State Capitol steps.

The jarring scene gave vaccine skeptics in Florida a big win and moved the state further away from the guidance of federal public health officials, reflecting how a highly politicized pandemic has only become more so as Republican-controlled states confront the Biden administration’s wide-ranging attempts to ease it.

Perhaps no state has been more aggressive than Florida, where DeSantis and his allies are betting that the anger over public health restrictions that drove Republicans to the polls this month in Virginia, New Jersey and other states will grow their political base and keep voters fervently engaged going into the 2022 midterms. DeSantis, who faces reelection next year, is also considered a leading 2024 Republican presidential contender.

The evolving strategy has turned traditional politics in Florida upside down, creating a tension between Republican state lawmakers and big business, one of their key constituencies, while leaving the small minority of Democratic legislators to defend local government efforts to control the virus.

Almost entirely along party lines, Republicans passed four bills Wednesday to curtail mask and vaccine mandates, the culmination of a three-day special legislative session that DeSantis called so swiftly it caught even Republican leaders by surprise. The session was urgently needed to combat federal government overreach, DeSantis argued.

“No Floridian should be losing their job over COVID shots,” DeSantis, who has taken to dismissing the vaccinations as “jabs” or “injections,” said Tuesday. “That’s a personal decision that people should be able to make.”

The move against vaccination requirements has empowered groups whose fringe views on the vaccines were met with little pushback from Republican legislators, a striking departure from past Florida politics.

“The conscience of their caucus has been hijacked by extremes,” said Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee. “It’s a danger to democracy.”

DeSantis and Republican lawmakers insisted that they support COVID-19 vaccines — and in many cases noted that they have taken them.

“No one is arguing that the vaccine doesn’t work,” Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said on the Senate floor. “Thank God that we have a vaccine.”

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the new legislation was aimed at allowing Floridians to decide for themselves.

“We’re getting to this place where nuance is lost on everyone,” he said. “You can be for a vaccine or for the opportunity for people to get a vaccine and still not support a massive government-forced vaccination.”

Similar paradigm shifts have been occurring in other Republican-controlled states, including Texas, where business leaders in the past most often saw their interests reflected in the actions of lawmakers. Now, those same lawmakers are instead channeling the wishes of activists who oppose COVID vaccinations altogether under the guise of promoting freedom.

In addition to Florida, at least five other states have considered or held special sessions on pandemic mandates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

About 60,800 people have died of COVID-19 in Florida. The state was hit hard by the virus this summer, when the delta variant filled hospitals in much of the state with more patients than at any time during the pandemic. That wave has burned itself out, and in recent days new cases and hospitalizations have fallen to some of the lowest levels in the country. About 61% of Florida’s population is fully vaccinated, slightly higher than the national average, according to federal data.

The governor’s dalliance with vaccine doubters may have begun in April, when DeSantis declined to get his Johnson & Johnson shot in public, joking that he did not need to show off his biceps. (He has since declined to say if he has received a recommended booster or intends to get one.)

In September, DeSantis picked as Florida’s new surgeon general Dr. Joseph A. Ladapo, an outspoken mask and vaccine skeptic who has not disclosed whether he has been vaccinated. The Florida Department of Health, under his guidance, would have significant authority over how the state enforces anti-mandate legislation.

Last month, Ladapo declined to wear a mask when he went to meet with Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, even after she said she had a serious health condition and asked him to. She later publicly disclosed that she had recently undergone surgery for breast cancer.

On Wednesday, Polsky drew a line from the governor’s selection of Ladapo to Republican lawmakers’ tolerance of the anti-vaccination activists who filled legislative committee meetings this week.

“You can all say that you’re pro-vaccine and anti-mandate, but these actions are playing to this crowd,” she said on the Senate floor.

In the end, lawmakers did not go as far as the governor had hoped.

They banned vaccine mandates for public school districts and local governments and gave parents sole discretion over whether students should get vaccinated or wear masks. (The DeSantis administration fined Leon County $3.5 million last month for mandating vaccines for its employees — $5,000 for each person.)

They allowed vaccine mandates for private businesses as long as companies included exemptions for medical and religious reasons that were expected to be much broader than the federal exemptions. Employees could also opt out if they were willing to be periodically tested or wear protective equipment, like masks. Employers would have to pay for the tests or provide the masks.

The Legislature also imposed fines of $50,000 per violation for employers with 100 workers or more (and fines of $10,000 for smaller employers) that mandate vaccines outside the allowable guidelines.

Lawmakers also allocated $1 million to the governor’s office to study leaving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a clear jab at the Biden administration’s workplace order.

Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the new legislation.

“Does this bill really truly attempt to keep Floridians safe?” said Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, who contracted COVID while she was pregnant last year. “Or was it crafted to kick off a presidential campaign for our governor?”

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