TALLAHASSEE — On a perfect 75-degree afternoon at Florida’s Capitol, the signs told the story.
“For the ‘greater good’ = Communism”
“Unvaccinated Lives Matter”
At a spirited Tuesday rally, a few hundred Floridians demanded an end to vaccine mandates. For nearly two hours, the audience listened as more than a dozen speakers strode into the sunshine to extol the virtue of personal choice. Lieutenant governor Jeanette Nuñez spoke. There were flags and chants and, at the end, an impromptu rendition of “God Bless America.”
Cindie Cagle, a member of the anti-mandate group Citizens For Medical Freedom, came to the Capitol from her Pensacola home and for nearly the entire event held above her head a sign: “GOD’s Vaccine = Natural Immunity = 99.8% Survival”.
Her friends marveled at her stamina. She said she’s fighting against federal orders like the one issued by President Joe Biden’s administration mandating vaccines or testing in the country’s large workplaces. To her, the fate of the country hangs in the balance.
“There are so many people living in fear. It’s incredible,” Cagle said. “I see our country falling apart.”
Not 100 yards away, inside windowless Capitol building chambers, lawmakers were having a different conversation. Throughout the special session, Republican leaders have been caught between two sides. One is a silent, but influential business community opposed to government interference in the workplace. The other side is a small number of passionate activists opposed to vaccine mandates who are frustrated because they feel the state isn’t going far enough.
That dilemma facing the Republicans who control the Legislature, however, has rarely surfaced during the lawmaking process of this special session. Lawmakers have mostly stuck to the script given to them by Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Gov. Ron DeSantis. On Tuesday, they moved four bills backed by leadership that, collectively, represent Florida’s response to the federal vaccine mandates. The full House and Senate chambers will take each of them up Wednesday.
Only one Republican senator pushed back on legislation Tuesday: Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a libertarian-leaning senator in his final year in office because of term limits.
Brandes came out against a proposal to spend $1 million to help DeSantis’ office come up with a plan — for a plan — to replace federal oversight of workplaces with state oversight by creating a new agency.
“I think this is absolutely the growth of government, and something that as a Republican we have taken a strong stance against over time,” Brandes said.
Brandes also noted the silence of the business owners and leaders, who usually side with Republicans and would be most affected by a dramatic change in workplace safety oversight.
“None of our business community has stood up at the dais and supported this,” Brandes said. “In fact, they’ve been remarkably silent on it.”
Democrats pounced on what they called hypocrisy.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, repeatedly asked why the state was assigning $5 million to give to Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to investigate companies who would violate state law on vaccines.
The Republican senator sponsoring that bill, Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills, said the allocation would mostly be used to defend any legal challenges to the law, but he had no answers about how many investigations the state would pursue against companies or how much they would cost.
“That is traditionally, historically, a tenet of your party: fiscal responsibility, smaller government, less regulation,” Pizzo replied. “Today we’re going to contemplate adding an agency of regulatory authority with no scope, no deadline, no benchmark.”
Members of the GOP’s base, who have shown up to testify on the measures in committee meetings, said they were largely pleased with lawmakers’ efforts. A few wish they would do more.
Scott Kiley of Marco Island came to Tuesday’s rally with a sign urging lawmakers to vote against Burgess’ bill, which restricts an employer’s ability to mandate vaccines unless the firm offers several exemptions for employees.
“I think if you want to prohibit mandates, then there are no exemptions,” Kiley said.
Although their legislation is not ideal for all Republicans, top legislators have accommodated those who hesitate or refuse to take a COVID-19 vaccine. Burgess’ bill includes a provision allowing employees expecting to become pregnant to opt out of the COVID-19 vaccine even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends pregnant people get the shot.
Senate President Wilton Simpson noted in a Monday news conference that the COVID-19 vaccine was put together in “seven or eight months,” a fact that has been used by those opposed to getting the vaccine as evidence the shots are unsafe. American scientists gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine after analyzing data from a controlled study involving more than 40,000 people. Hundreds of millions have gotten shots over the past year, and the vaccines have proven effective at protecting people against hospitalization and death.
To some in Tuesday’s crowd, the Legislature is in sync with the Republican base. John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council, who helped organize the rally, said he supports the legislation under consideration.
Others, such as Dr. Ben Marble of Gulf Breeze, warned of a “mass die-off” of the world’s vaccinated population, calling the inoculations “poison.”
But nearly every attendee agreed DeSantis, who called the special session, is fighting for them.
“I hope legislation passes, but I hope they modify the legislation to follow DeSantis’ wishes, which are, ‘You can’t mandate at all,’” Kiley said.