TALLAHASSEE — Despite facing pushback from medical professionals and businesses, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced legislation Tuesday that would make permanent a law to penalize companies that require employees to wear masks or be vaccinated for COVID-19 and added a new ban on medical boards reprimanding doctors for spreading COVID misinformation.
“This is just nuts that we’re still doing this,” DeSantis said to cheering supporters in Panama City Beach. “We need to be leading on this by making all of these protections permanent in Florida statute as we need to do in the upcoming legislative session.”
The proposal will attempt to make permanent a series of laws passed by legislators in November 2021 after DeSantis called a special session aimed at restricting Florida businesses that were following a federal law requiring mask mandates or requiring employees to be vaccinated.
If approved by Florida legislators, the measure would continue to prohibit COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements in schools and government, and prohibit COVID-19 vaccine requirements for employment or travel.
This year, DeSantis wants to expand the sanctions on businesses by prohibiting employers from hiring or firing based on vaccine status or wearing a mask, and he wants to revive a failed proposal from last year’s legislative session that would make it more difficult for a medical licensing board to reprimand or sanction a doctor for views expressed by the medical professional — including on social media.
Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo also spoke at the news conference Tuesday and repeated his claim that masks are not effective in preventing the spread of the virus and dismissed the effectiveness of vaccines.
“This is the first time in history where we are using this technology widely in human beings,” he said, referring to the mRNA vaccines. “You’re telling people to put it in children, and you’ve never even shown the children to gain from it in terms of an actual help. That’s the land of crazy. Florida is the land of sanity.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website lists several studies that have shown masking to be helpful in curbing the spread of the virus. In January 2022, a CDC report found vaccinated Americans were far less likely both to contract the virus and to die from it.
Leading House Democrat responds
House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell of Tampa called the governor and his administration “the No. 1 peddler of misinformation from the anti-vax establishment.”
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“It is a fake ideology with real consequences,” she said, noting that less than one-third of Florida’s nursing home residents, the most vulnerable age group, are up to date on their vaccines, even though the state Department of Health recommends them.
Driskell emphasized that “no one ever promised total immunity, but those vaccines do lessen the chance of infection and they increase the likelihood of a milder case if you do get sick.” She accused the governor of “rewriting history” after promoting the vaccines when they were first available.
Since former President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid, DeSantis has sought to become the face of the opposition to the Biden administration’s COVID policies, which the governor said were overreaching. He called lawmakers into special session in November 2021 to punish companies that followed the federal law.
But lawmakers rejected some of his proposals, including changing the law to open the door for businesses to be sued for coronavirus-related liability if the business required their employees to be vaccinated.
Business leaders quietly told legislators then that they didn’t want to be told by the state what they couldn’t do any more than they wanted the federal government to tell them what they had to do to keep their workplaces safe in the midst of the pandemic.
More than 100 companies, including some of the largest corporations operating in Florida, had adopted vaccination requirements for their employees, with some already issuing layoff notices to those who didn’t comply.
Legislators changed course
Legislators not only rejected some of the strict penalties on businesses sought by the governor, they set the entire package of vaccine-related provisions to expire June 1, 2023.
But with the deadline approaching and a new Republican-led Legislature ready to please the popular governor, DeSantis said Tuesday he was confident the permanent restrictions will pass.
As he positions himself for a run for the 2024 GOP nomination for president, DeSantis has been focused on keeping COVID and Florida’s response to it in the national headlines. During his 2022 reelection campaign, the governor promoted the “free state of Florida” and pointed to the absence of COVID protocols as proof.
“The free state of Florida did not happen by accident,” DeSantis said at the news conference Tuesday in which he took no questions. “It required us over these last few years to stand against major institutions in our society — the bureaucracy, the medical establishment, legacy media and even the president of the United States — who together were working to impose a biomedical security state on society.”
But many of the proposals that drew headlines in 2021 have since been weakened in the face of court challenges or disregarded.
After a Leon County judge’s ruling that said the state could not enforce a ban on strict mask mandates in schools, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal reversed the decision, giving the DeSantis administration a victory. The U.S. Department of Education subsequently dropped a cease-and-desist complaint against the state when school districts dropped mask mandates.
Leaving OSHA over restrictions isn’t happening
In 2021, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforced federal COVID mask and vaccine mandates. During the special session, legislators also passed a law to allow the state to study withdrawing from the business safety protections required under OSHA and replace it with a newly created state agency.
That plan got the governor national attention, but it never got off the ground. The governor’s budget chief said in a January 2022 report to the Legislature that creating a new state agency would take nine years and it was too early to determine whether pursuing the change would be “prudent.”
Meanwhile, as Florida and other states sued the Biden administration over its mandate of vaccines in large workplaces, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision blocked Biden’s vaccine and testing mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees that was enforced by OSHA. However, the high court allowed the vaccine mandate to stand for medical facilities that take Medicare or Medicaid payments, which is still in force in many Florida hospitals.
Under the proposals, a regulatory board could only sanction a physician for their views if it found that the speech “led to the direct physical harm” of a patient the doctor had seen within the last three years. Under the Senate bill, a board could be liable for up to $1.5 million every time it violates the established standard for sanctions.
State medical boards opposed the legislation. The Federation of State Medical Boards told the Times/Herald last year that the proposed legislation could limit boards’ abilities to conduct their work, which “sets a dangerous precedent and puts the public at risk.”
DeSantis said that the proposal is in response to legislation passed in California that would allow regulators to punish doctors for spreading false information about COVID-19 vaccinations and treatments.
“We want to protect people’s ability to follow the evidence and to choose evidence over narrative, and unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of these institutions, including many medical institutions, become very politicized,” DeSantis said.
California passed the legislation following a 2021 warning by the national Federation of State Medical Boards that licensing boards should do more to discipline doctors who share false claims. The American Medical Association has also warned that spreading disinformation violates doctors’ code of ethics.
Also speaking at the news conference was Panama City dermatologist Jon Ward, whom DeSantis last year called “one of the engines behind this movement.”
“What is misinformation and who gets to decide?” Ward asked. “Time and time again we see that yesterday’s misinformation is today’s fact.”
In 2021, Ward made a social media post encouraging parents to “train your child” to lie to school officials and say they previously had COVID-19 to avoid having to quarantine after an exposure. Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt told a local TV station at the time that the advice was “absolutely reprehensible,” and Ward later said he felt “regret” for the statement and edited the post.
However, the new version still offered “a pro tip to game the system” by noting that many schools were not requiring actual proof of vaccination or previous infection, according to WJHG.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Kirby Wilson and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.