DeSantis signs vaccine mandate bills into law as Florida challenges new rule

Attorney General Ashley Moody on Wednesday filed a lawsuit challenging a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rule on employee vaccines.
Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to speak before signing bills to limit COVID-19 vaccine mandates on private, state government employees and school districts at Brandon Honda in in Brandon on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to speak before signing bills to limit COVID-19 vaccine mandates on private, state government employees and school districts at Brandon Honda in in Brandon on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 18, 2021|Updated Nov. 18, 2021

TAMPA — Wasting little time, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed into law four bills that offset federal mask and vaccine mandates less than 12 hours after state lawmakers passed the legislation along mostly party lines.

Claiming he was upholding the rights of Floridians to choose whether or not to be vaccinated, DeSantis said he was signing the strongest legislation yet that blunts a federal mandate on employer vaccine requirements.

“We’re proud of leading. We’re proud of standing up for people’s rights,” DeSantis said before a raucous crowd at Brandon Honda.

“I think Brandon’s a great American city,” DeSantis said. “We’re proud to be able to make the stand for freedom in Brandon, Florida.”

While technically in Tampa, the dealership promotes itself as being in Brandon, a nearby unincorporated community of 114,000 in Hillsborough County that also happens to bear the name included in an unrelated but popular GOP slogan that is code for an obscenity directed at President Joe Biden.

Chants of that slogan, “Let’s go Brandon!” punctuated Thursday’s bill signing, which felt more like a campaign rally than an official governor’s office event. Supporters held up signs given out by DeSantis’ office. Florida’s surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, repeated an audience member’s claim that the federal coronavirus restrictions were akin to “spiritual warfare.”

The four bills DeSantis signed completed his progression from an elected official who promoted the vaccine late last year to one of the more prominent and powerful voices downplaying its effectiveness. His adopted stance puts him more in line with GOP primary voters skeptical of, and hostile to, COVID safety measures. The bills do the following:

  • Restrict businesses’ ability to mandate vaccines for their employees. Companies have to offer workers a number of exemptions or risk fines of at least $10,000 per violation from the state. This measure would expire June 1, 2023.
  • Ban school districts from passing mask mandates, and prohibit governments from enacting vaccine requirements for public sector employees.
  • Create a public records exemption to conceal from public view investigations by the attorney general’s office into violations of the law restricting vaccine mandates. The investigations would become public once they are closed — except for an individual’s religious or medical information.
  • Direct DeSantis to form a plan for the state to eventually create a new agency to replace the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in monitoring workplace safety.
  • Strike from state law the surgeon general’s ability to mandate vaccination for an individual during a public health crisis.

The legislation was in response to a recent Biden Administration rule mandating employers with more than a 100 employees to require that their workers be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

That rule has been placed on hold by a federal appeals court. But the legislation passed this week pits health care providers against another federal rule, published Nov. 5 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

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The federal rule applies to hundreds of facilities in Florida, including hospitals, nursing homes and hospices, and requires a Dec. 6 deadline for workers to get their first shot. They may not opt out unless they have a medical exemption or a religious objection.

Facilities that fail to enforce the rule risk losing Medicare and Medicaid funding — a massive income source for large providers. The bill signed by DeSantis Thursday restricting workplace vaccine mandates would leave those same facilities subject to state fines if they implement the federal rule.

On Wednesday, Florida’s attorney general Ashley Moody sued the Biden Administration to block that rule. The state’s brief outlines a number of arguments, including:

  • The federal government did not properly consult the state or allow for public comments on the rule.
  • The Biden Administration is empowering the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services beyond the scope of its rulemaking authority.
  • Florida would suffer harm from the rule because the mandates would exacerbate workforce shortages in the health care industry.

The brief also includes at least one political shot at Biden, arguing that the mandate is the result of “political pressure.”

“Facing a scandal over his actions in Afghanistan, dismal approval numbers on his COVID response, and an inability to advance his legislative agenda, President Biden succumbed to pressure to control the health care decisions of millions,” the brief reads.

Florida hopes the courts will put a temporary pause on the rule before Dec. 6.

Despite DeSantis’ effort to limit vaccine mandates, some supporters in Tallahassee this week wanted him to go further and ban mandates outright. During Thursday’s event, some still seemed dissatisfied with the state’s GOP leaders, briefly booing House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who shepherded the legislation through his chamber. One person also asked DeSantis whether he would audit the 2020 election, which DeSantis has said is unnecessary.

DeSantis has said this week’s legislation was critical to prevent workers from being fired for refusing to be vaccinated. He said vaccines don’t prevent infection, and that the federal rules don’t take into account people who may be immune because they already contracted COVID-19.

“To say it should be mandated when you can still get it, this is a personal choice,” DeSantis said of being vaccinated. “That’s the science-based approach.”