DeSantis plans to call a special legislative session on vaccine mandates

House Speaker Chris Sprowls said he did not know details of the governor’s plans.
Published Oct. 21, 2021|Updated Oct. 21, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s governor has declared war on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination.

At a news conference in Clearwater, Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out a litany of legislative policy priorities that would undermine federal requirements that workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Among the laws DeSantis wants to see passed:

  • A proposal making businesses liable for any medical harm that results from a mandatory vaccination
  • An addendum to the 2021 law protecting businesses from coronavirus-related liability undoing those protections if businesses mandate vaccination for their employees
  • A measure allowing parents to collect attorney’s fees if they win a lawsuit against a school district for enacting illegal coronavirus restrictions
  • A law making it clear that it’s illegal for governments to mandate the vaccine for government employees

DeSantis said he’s planning to call a special session in November so the Republican-controlled Legislature can consider these and other measures that he said would protect employees from an overreaching government.

“Quite frankly, this would have been something we would have done last legislative session,” DeSantis said. “If I honestly thought this would be something that would get this far, we would have made it a big priority.”

The regularly scheduled legislative session starts Jan. 11.

The governor’s Thursday announcement was not a formal list of policy proposals. Instead, surrounded by supporters, including Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and Attorney General Ashley Moody, DeSantis rattled off ideas for new laws. It’s unclear how they’ll fare in the Legislature, but the state’s Republican leadership has rarely strayed far from the governor’s policy agenda in the past.

Before DeSantis’ news conference ended, House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ office sent a memo to members saying he did not have details on the governor’s call for a special session.

But later Thursday afternoon, Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, issued a joint statement in which they offered support for a special session.

“In the coming days, we will review the governor’s specific proposals as well as discuss our own ideas for legislative action,” the statement said. “During the upcoming special session, our goal is to make our laws even more clear that Florida stands as refuge for families and businesses who want to live in freedom.”

Florida business leaders said they have yet to see the details of the governor’s proposals.

“We need articulated what exactly is the problem and then maybe there is legislation we can support,’’ said Mark Wilson, executive director of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

A possible special session comes as President Joe Biden’s administration has announced it will impose a series of mandates in an effort to boost the vaccination rate of a country that has fallen behind its global peers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will create a rule requiring private companies that employ 100 or more people to either have their workers vaccinated or tested weekly. That rule has Sprowls and Simpson considering whether to withdraw Florida from the federal agency’s oversight and establish a state program, according to their statement.

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Federal contractors will be required to get a shot by Dec. 8 under a separate order. And employees at health care facilities that receive Medicaid or Medicare funding — there are thousands in Florida alone — will have to have their staff vaccinated under a rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

DeSantis said Thursday he plans to back legal challenges to those mandates.

Legal questions aside, the governor said the federal government has no right to dictate a person’s medical decisions. And he also argued that vaccine mandates will not protect people from the coronavirus.

Throughout Thursday’s news conference, DeSantis and other officials emphasized the potential downsides of vaccination. DeSantis called the mandates “forced injections,” an overstatement of the federal mandates, which do not force vaccination on anybody. Moody criticized how “people are being forced to upload papers to a database to show that they have been vaccinated” even though presenting vaccine records is required for children in public schools.

Ladapo, the state’s top health official, went perhaps the furthest to cast doubt on the efficacy of the vaccines, which have proven largely effective at preventing hospitalization and death from the virus.

“These vaccines are not preventing transmission. So sure, they reduce the likelihood of transmission, and even that is sort of questionable depending on how far out you go,” Ladapo said. “I’ve heard some leaders say things like, ‘We’ll create safe workplaces by mandating these vaccines.’ Well, they’re really decoupled, because the infections can still happen whether people are vaccinated or not.”

Derek Cummings, a professor and infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, said workplace vaccination mandates would help “quite a bit” as the country navigates the pandemic.

Cummings likened Ladapo’s warning about imperfect vaccines to people who make dubious arguments about wearing seat belts.

“We deal with this in our lives all the time: There are things that help us in most cases, but we don’t dismiss them because they don’t help us in every case,” Cummings said. Later, he added: ”There have been consistent scientific findings that vaccines reduce infection, reduce death and reduce onward transmission.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that vaccinated individuals can still contract and spread the disease. But federal data from the CDC showed that in August, unvaccinated individuals were six times more likely to contract the virus — and about 11 times more likely to die from it. Those vaccinated who do get infected are far less likely to be hospitalized than those who don’t get vaccinated.

Democrats, who are powerless to stop the governor’s agenda because they are vastly outnumbered in the Legislature, later criticized DeSantis’ call for a special session.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried noted that the governor didn’t call such a session to address any of Florida’s recent crises: the pandemic-heightened unemployment issues, this summer’s surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations or the building collapse in Surfside that killed nearly 100.

“This is a purely self-serving political ploy by the governor, once again pulling out all the stops to appease — and encourage — extremist positions that fly in the face of science and public health,” Fried said.

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation called it a “clear attack on Florida businesses and local leaders who have taken steps to protect Floridians.”

Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, noted that even among the governor’s party, Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, was the only Republican in the Legislature calling for a special session about vaccine mandates.

But DeSantis’ comments were embraced by many in the GOP base. Audra Christian, a leader with Community Patriots Pinellas, a conservative political advocacy group, lauded DeSantis’ actions Thursday.

“I think the governor has finally listened to the people when the legislators would not,” Christian said. “Which is shameful because they represent us.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.