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Florida lawmakers move forward on vaccine mandate bills

Democrats said this week is just “theater” for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson waves to people in the gallery, as he presides over the opening of a special legislative session targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. The special session was called by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has aggressively opposed the application of vaccine and masking mandates in the state.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson waves to people in the gallery, as he presides over the opening of a special legislative session targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. The special session was called by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has aggressively opposed the application of vaccine and masking mandates in the state. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Nov. 16, 2021|Updated Nov. 16, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers advanced multiple bills limiting mask and vaccine mandates during the first day of a contentious special session of the state Legislature requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Committees in the Republican-controlled House and Senate voted for bills that would require private employers to accommodate employees who do not want to be vaccinated and, eventually, swap federal oversight of workplace safety for state oversight.

“I firmly believe we’re on the right side of history and of science,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills.

Although state lawmakers were not supposed to return to Tallahassee to pass bills until January, DeSantis called them back early to resist a proposed federal rule by President Joe Biden’s administration that would require companies with more than 100 employees to require their employees be vaccinated. The special legislative session is expected to end on Wednesday or Thursday.

Related: What Florida lawmakers will consider during the vaccine mandate special session

Four bills lawmakers are considering this week would:

  • Allow private employers to require employees be vaccinated as long as they offer several opt-outs, such as a providing a doctor’s note, claiming a religious exemption, wearing a mask or undergoing regular testing.
  • Allow employees to file complaints against employers with the Attorney General’s office, which could levy fines of up to $50,000. The complaints would be exempt from public records requests.
  • Give parents, not schools, sole discretion over masking and vaccine requirements for their children.
  • Create a plan to eventually end federal oversight of workplace safety and replace it with a safety program established by the state.

DeSantis and Republicans said the bills were needed to prevent employees from losing their jobs over a personal choice. DeSantis on Monday tweeted a photo with the group Operation Freedom of Choice, which has supported Orange County firefighters who nearly lost their jobs after the county imposed a vaccine requirement.

“We don’t believe that the federal government should be in a position of forcing vaccines,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Monday.

Democrats spent Monday questioning why the bills were needed and accusing Republicans of placating DeSantis’ political ambitions. DeSantis, who is running for re-election next year, spent the summer railing against Biden and the federal vaccine mandate his administration proposed.

“This is just theater,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, a lawyer and former prosecutor, “A lot of these bills should be void for vagueness.”

The bills leave many of the details, such as how often an employee would have to be tested if they choose not to be vaccinated, up to the state’s Department of Health.

The bills also would give Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office $5 million to investigate employee complaints. Pizzo’s district includes Surfside, where a condominium collapsed earlier this year killing 98 people. He said $5 million was “probably more” than the state “is going to spend on condo investigations for 2.5 million condos this year.”

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He added, “That’s an insult.”

Democrats, however, have no organized effort to combat the bills. Badly outnumbered in the House and Senate, their attempts to modify through amendments were voted down along partisan lines Monday. The party also took no caucus positions on the bills, so they posed no united front against the legislation.

Monday’s debate reflected the last-minute nature of the special legislative session, which was requested by DeSantis without consulting the Legislature’s GOP leaders.

In the Senate, speakers were warned at the beginning of the meeting that lawmakers were short on time and that public comments would be limited to one minute, instead of three.

In the House, leaders did not release agendas for afternoon committee meetings until just before two hours before they began — the minimum amount of time to give notice under House rules.

While debate between Democratic and Republican lawmakers grew heated, the public testimony was more inflammatory.

One person speaking in a Senate committee said the coronavirus vaccine had killed his coworkers and family. A group of doctors who loosely call themselves part of the “Global COVID Summit” traveled to Tallahassee from Hawaii, Missouri, Texas and across Florida to argue against vaccine mandates and advocate for alternative therapies such as Ivermectin.

Their airfare was paid for by patients of Ocala family physician Dr. John Littell, who said he wanted them “to get the word out.”

Some of them will participate in a rally Tuesday at the Capitol that will involve what Littell said will be about 50 various groups.

“We’re just being treated like second-class citizens because we don’t agree with the narrative,” Littell told senators.

Times/Herald staff writers Ana Ceballos and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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