• The San Juan Daily Star

Florida legislature kicks off special session to pass bills curtailing federal COVID mandates

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

By Patricia Mazzei

At the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has used his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates to build up his national political profile, Florida lawmakers kicked off a special legislative session earlier this week to take up legislation aimed at restricting such measures.

DeSantis, who is seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2024, has cast the session as a high-profile effort to counter the vaccination rules set by the Biden administration.

The Biden administration has ordered federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated, as well as employees of health care companies that receive Medicare and Medicaid. The federal government also plans to put in place workplace-safety rules in January mandating that all businesses with 100 or more employees require them to be vaccinated or be tested frequently.

Several states with conservative governors, including Florida, have already challenged those federal mandates in court. To also pass laws curtailing them would put Florida at the forefront of what has become a highly politicized fight between GOP-led states and the White House.

“Nobody should be losing their jobs because of these jabs,” DeSantis, who has taken to calling the vaccinations “jabs” or “injections,” said last week.

About 60,700 people have died of COVID-19 in Florida. The state was hit hard by the virus this summer, when the delta strain 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. Just over 60% of Florida’s population is vaccinated, according to a New York Times database.

Critics of the governor have said that his fight against mandates resulted in needless deaths. Florida experienced its worst daily death tolls during the summer surge, when vaccines were already widely available.

As cases surged, DeSantis fought local school districts and governments that required masks or vaccines, withholding funds, fining them or taking them to court. (Most school districts have now loosened their mask restrictions, in light of the falling virus levels.)

The special session is intended to carry the state Republican Party’s opposition to mandates even further.

Business leaders, however, have expressed fears that any new Florida laws might force them to face conflicting state and federal mandates.

Democrats have decried the move as mere political theater. “This entire special session is a political stunt,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, said Monday.

But the governor, who formally announced his 2022 reelection last week, is too popular among conservatives in the Republican base for his wishes to be ignored. “We don’t believe that the federal government should be in a position to force vaccines,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls said in the state Capitol on Monday.

None of the four proposed bills under consideration would ban employee vaccine mandates outright. Private employers would be able to require vaccinations, but they would also have to allow for exemptions for medical issues or pregnancy, and religious reasons. Employees willing to be periodically tested or wear protective equipment could also opt out. Employers would have to pay for the tests or provide protective equipment, like masks.

Public school districts and local governments would be prohibited from requiring vaccinations. Lawmakers would also give parents the sole discretion over whether students should get vaccinated or wear masks.

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