TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida will fine local governments $5,000 for each employee who is required to be vaccinated, threatening some cities and counties with millions of dollars in penalties for adopting strict vaccine “mandates.”
During a Monday news conference in Alachua County, DeSantis vowed to fight that city’s requirement that employees be vaccinated by the end of the month or be fired.
“We are not going to let people get fired because of the vaccine mandate,” DeSantis said. “You don’t just cast aside people who have been serving faithfully over this issue, over what’s basically a personal choice over their individual health.”
The result could be the state imposing millions of dollars in fines under a new state law barring Florida businesses and local governments from requiring proof of a vaccine “to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the governmental entity’s operations in this state.” A new Department of Health rule enforcing the law is set to take effect Thursday.
Gainesville, Orange County and Leon County have each passed requirements that employees be vaccinated or be fired, with exemptions for religious or medical reasons. DeSantis noted that Orange County has thousands of employees.
“That’s millions and millions of dollars potentially in fines,” DeSantis said.
Other cities and counties, such as Miami-Dade and Tampa, have adopted less onerous approaches, requiring employees be vaccinated or submit to weekly tests. DeSantis’ spokesperson did not respond when asked whether the $5,000 fines would apply to that city policy.
Miami-Dade County says this will not apply to it because it doesn’t require vaccines. It requires testing, but you can opt out if you have proof of vaccination.
“The policy he announced are for governments requiring vaccines,” said Rachel Johnson, communications director for Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. “If that’s the case, it shouldn’t have any impact on our policy, which is just requiring testing with the option to opt out if you are vaccinated and choose to present the information that you are vaccinated.”
Although the fines also apply to private businesses that require proof of vaccinations, DeSantis’ administration wouldn’t say Monday whether they would be subject to the fines. Walt Disney World, for example, is requiring all union employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 22. Both Disney and Royal Caribbean also said they will require passengers to be fully vaccinated before boarding their cruise ships.
“Regarding private businesses, we’re looking at all legal options to protect the rights of employees,” DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw wrote in an email.
In Gainesville, more than 200 employees, including police and firefighters, have sued the city. Some of those employees said Monday that they were fighting the requirement on principle. They also expressed skepticism over the safety of the vaccines, while DeSantis stood next to them.
“The vaccine changes your RNA, so for me, that’s a problem,” said Darris Friend, who said he’s about a year and a half away from retirement after 22 years with the city. “It’s about our freedom and liberty. It’s not about the vaccine.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states clearly that the vaccines don’t “change or interact” with DNA in any way. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both include messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, which is a molecule that carries the code that trains your body to build immunity against COVID-19.
Christine Damm, who has worked for the city for 10 years, said her four children lost their grandmother last year, although not from COVID.
“I will not put my children through the possibility of losing another maternal figure in their lives,” she said. “My family means everything to me. My body, my choice.”
The CDC has said reports of death following COVID-19 vaccination are exceptionally rare.
DeSantis has fought cities, counties, schools and cruise ship operators from adopting mask or vaccine requirements for employees and customers over the last year. He vowed again Monday to challenge President Joe Biden’s plan to require businesses with more than 100 employees to confirm all of their workers are fully vaccinated or require them to submit to weekly COVID tests.
DeSantis said requirements like Gainesville’s are against science, since they don’t include provisions for people who have already had COVID and developed natural antibodies to the virus.
“Many of them have already had COVID, okay?” he said. “They’ve had COVID, they’ve recovered, and most of them — well, the ones who have recovered — have very strong immunity.”
A spokesperson for the City of Gainesville said the city was standing by its policy.
“The health, safety and welfare of our city’s workforce and those we serve is our number one priority,” spokesperson Shelby Taylor said. “The city has taken the steps necessary to achieve that priority and stand by that decision. It is our belief that as an employer, we retain the right and responsibility to require vaccinations as a condition of employment.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody, who filed an amicus brief supporting the employees suing the city, said the requirement was “unlawful.”
“You now have the attorney general in the state of Florida in your corner,” she told employees at Monday’s event.
Jon Cicio, a search and rescue specialist for the city, said he felt “betrayed” by the city just months after being sent to Surfside to look for victims in the Champlain Towers South collapse earlier this year.
“While we were heroes and selfless not long ago, now we’re selfish,” Cicio said. “We need to stand up and fight.”
Times/Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.