DeSantis announces 5-day special session to deal with COVID mandates

Legislators will be asked to return Nov. 15-19 and consider a long list of proposals, including punishing businesses, schools and governments that require employees to show proof of vaccination in the workplace.
The Capitol in Tallahassee.
The Capitol in Tallahassee. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 29, 2021|Updated Oct. 29, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday made official his call for a special session next month, announcing that he will bring legislators to Tallahassee for five days to address a series of reforms to state law imposing new penalties on employers and governments that attempt to use vaccines and masks to protect people from the spread of the coronavirus.

Legislators will be asked to return Nov. 15-19, the same week they are already scheduled to be in the state Capitol for committee meetings.

In his lengthy proclamation, the governor did not specifically call for a ban on vaccine mandates but instead asked legislators to “protect workers against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and address employer policies that force COVID-19 vaccination.” He has said that could include punishing businesses, schools and governments that require employees to show proof of vaccination in the workplace by making businesses liable for any medical harm that results from a mandatory vaccination, and repealing liability protections from COVID-19-related claims if businesses impose vaccine mandates on their employees.

The governor also has said he wants legislators to allow parents to collect attorney’s fees if they win a lawsuit against a school district for enacting illegal coronavirus restrictions, legislation clarifying the existing law that makes it illegal for governments and schools in Florida to mandate the vaccine and testing options for government employees, and expanded reemployment options for individuals who lose their jobs because they refuse to be vaccinated.

In addition, the governor is asking lawmakers to create a new public records exemption relating to COVID-related complaints and investigations.

The primary goal of the session is “to address the Biden administration’s unprecedented efforts to coerce or pressure workers into receiving injections of the COVID-19 vaccine and to interfere with the enforcement of state law governing the use of masks and quarantines in public schools,’’ the proclamation states.

“Your right to earn a living should not be contingent upon COVID shots,” DeSantis said in a statement.

Legislature makes its own decisions

Although the governor can call legislators into session, he cannot make them pass what he wants. However, the Republican leaders of both chambers indicated Friday they are supportive of doing what the governor seeks.

“Over the last two years, Floridians have watched the freedoms of our friends and relatives in other states get stripped away one at a time,’’ House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson said in a joint statement. “We will not stand by as the Biden administration imposes an illegal and unconstitutional nationwide vaccine mandate that robs the American people of the dignity of work.”

They said they will “craft and pass thoughtful legislation” and “will do everything in our power as a state to protect Floridians from un-American and morally-reprehensible overreaches on the part of the federal government.”

The governor is asking lawmakers to “clarify” and strengthen the “Parents Bill of Rights,” a new state law that his administration has repeatedly and prominently invoked as it moved to punish school districts that required students to wear masks.

A Leon County judge ruled in August that the law, proposed by Republicans and signed by DeSantis in June, was improperly invoked and selectively enforced by the state when it was used it to bar school mask mandates.

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Legal, legislative fight still on

DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran disagreed with the ruling and are in the process of appealing it. As the court battle forges ahead, DeSantis is now turning to the Legislature to strengthen the law to “make it very clear” that parents have the sole discretion over COVID-19 rules, he told reporters at a news conference Friday.

He said statutory changes are needed because the newly enacted law, when drafted, did not contemplate that “local politicians [would] thumb their nose at the law.”

Currently, the law says that the state is not allowed to “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent” to direct the upbringing, education, healthcare, and mental health of a child “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”

It’s unclear what language state lawmakers will propose to meet the request from the governor. But DeSantis said the law “vests the decision on masking with parents, not government entities, and that schools must comply with Department of Health rules that govern student health, including rules that ensure healthy students can remain in school.”

“Forced masking and unnecessary quarantining of healthy school children over the objections of their parents infringes upon the parents’ ability to make health care and education decisions for their children and undermines the ability of Florida school children to receive the quality education they deserve,’’ the proclamation claims.

As he faces prolonged challenges with the Biden administration over school districts’ authority to require masks, DeSantis also asked lawmakers to “limit mandates by school districts on students or employees regarding COVID-19 and related mitigation measures” and to provide “adequate enforcement mechanisms” for the state’s laws and rules on the matter.

Leaving OSHA behind?

Included in the special session call was a proposal sought by Simpson and Sprowls in a statement last week that would have Florida “withdraw” from the “onerous federal regulations” placed on Floridians by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “and establish our own state program.”

DeSantis stopped short of ordering a withdrawal from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and told lawmakers they should “direct the state to evaluate” whether Florida should remove itself from direct federal oversight by the agency.

The GOP leaders proposed the idea last week, after President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would be creating a new OSHA rule that says private businesses with 100 or more employees must require their workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo weekly testing.

Instead of submitting directly to federal regulations, Florida would create its own workforce safety program — an idea that could cost millions and make the state the first to withdraw from direct OSHA oversight in nearly 40 years. Some 21 states and Puerto Rico have their own programs protecting private and public sector workers.

Former agency officials say Florida’s forming its own program would hardly lessen any regulatory burden on the state. The federal government would still have to approve Florida’s program, and it would have to be at least as effective as federal workplace standards, according to agency rules.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received and closed nearly 700 complaints against Florida businesses, according to its website.

DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody have said they plan to fight the federal rule in court.

The governor also called for changes to a 2002 law that allows the surgeon general to mandate the vaccination of an individual during a public health emergency.

That law, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002, allows the state health officer to force an individual to “be examined, tested, vaccinated, treated, isolated, or quarantined for communicable diseases that have significant morbidity or mortality and present a severe danger to public health.”

Anyone who is not willing to be tested, treated or vaccinated can be quarantined under that law. DeSantis wants the Legislature to remove the statute’s vaccination provision.

The 2002 measure was passed in response to the rash of feared terror attacks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was opposed at the time by the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, according to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The law targeted by DeSantis is different from the law mandating vaccines for school children that at least one prominent Republican, Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has said he wants to see revisited.

The points in the governor’s proclamation

In his proclamation, the governor wants the Legislature to pass legislation to:

▪ Protect current and prospective employees against unfair discrimination on the basis of COVID-19 vaccination status and ensure robust enforcement for this protection;

▪ Ensure that educational institutions and government entities are prohibited from unfairly discriminating against current and prospective employees, students, and residents on the basis of COVID-19 vaccination status;

▪ Ensure that employees improperly denied employment on the basis of COVID-19 vaccination status can be eligible for reemployment benefits and, if needed, ensure that employees injured by a COVID-19 vaccination taken pursuant to a company policy are covered by workers’ compensation;

▪ Appropriate a sufficient amount of funds to investigate complaints regarding COVID-19 vaccination mandates and to take legal action against such mandates, including mandates imposed by the federal government;

▪ Clarify that the Parents’ Bill of Rights, Chapter 1014, Florida Statutes, vests the decision on masking with parents, not government entities, and that schools must comply with Department of Health rules that govern student health, including rules that ensure healthy students can remain in school;

▪ Limit mandates by school districts on students or employees regarding COVID-19 and related mitigation measures;

▪ Provide adequate enforcement mechanisms to ensure that Florida law is followed and the rights of parents are honored;

▪ Direct the state to evaluate whether it should assert jurisdiction over occupational safety and health issues for government and private employees;

▪ Repeal the authority for the State Health Officer to order forced injections or vaccinations under Section 381.00315, Florida Statutes, originally enacted in 2002; and

▪ Create as necessary public records exemptions related to complaints and investigations described herein.

Miami Herald reporter Ana Ceballos and Tampa Bay Times reporters Lawrence Mower and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.