TAMPA — They spoke about toxic jabs. About tyranny. About resistance and freedom. They urged people not to comply with any coronavirus vaccine requirements.
Sixty or so people — overwhelmingly white — stood down the street from Old City Hall in the hot sun for more than an hour listening to a half-dozen speakers compare vaccine requirements to a “new racism” separating the vaccinated from those who refuse to comply.
The rally’s organizers said they were there in support of the 4,700 city employees who will have to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30 or file for exemptions under a policy announced by Mayor Jane Castor last month.
At least four in the crowd were city employees. One of those people, outgoing fire union president Joe Greco, said he doesn’t have a position on vaccines. But he said he wanted to be at the event to explain the union’s pending memorandum of understanding with Castor’s administration.
“They’ve been great. They’ve answered every question,” Greco said. But some firefighters are confused by the “evolving” city policy since the pandemic began in March 2020, he said.
One 22-year-old firefighter, who said he wanted to remain unidentified because he was afraid of retaliation from city officials, said he didn’t want to get vaccinated.
“I’ve been on the front lines for two years and haven’t gotten sick — knock on wood. I take my vitamins. I don’t feel like I should be vaccinated,” said the firefighter, who said he has worked for the city for 2 ½ years. Greco confirmed the man was a member of Tampa Fire Rescue.
No one who attended the rally will be punished, said Castor spokesperson Adam Smith.
“Why would there be (retaliation)? If they don’t want to get the vaccine, they have options,” Smith said.
Among those options are a positive antibody test and weekly testing requirements. City officials are asking for employees to confirm their vaccination status, Smith said Friday.
Albert Chavez, a city water department employee, said he was sent home by a supervisor until he got tested this week. He said his understanding is that he’ll be fired if he doesn’t comply.
He compared the city’s stance to the “brownshirts,” the paramilitary Nazi force that helped Hitler rise to power in the 1930s.
Not true, wrote Smith earlier Friday in a text.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa
Subscribe to our free Tampa Times newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“There’s no reason for anyone to be terminated or to quit, because the mayor’s policy includes options for everyone,” Smith wrote.
Smith couldn’t confirm late Friday if Chavez had been sent home.
President Joe Biden’s federal mandate, announced Thursday, won’t result in any changes in city policy, Smith said.
Yvette Gough, who helped organize the rally, said she and other protesters wanted to support city workers.
“Unmask America and wake up! We will not comply,” Gough said, speaking through a microphone to cheers.
In late August, Castor estimated about 40 percent of city workers were vaccinated. She said it wasn’t fair to vaccinated workers for the unvaccinated to work alongside them, sometimes in close quarters.
Castor said in a statement Friday shortly after the 4 p.m. protest started that the vast majority of hospitalizations were people who were not vaccinated.
“Vaccines are safe and effective. Tampa’s vaccine policy is the right thing to do for our employees and our community,” she said.
The protesters were peaceful, with plenty of American flags and posters — one of which bore Castor’s likeness as Adolph Hitler, complete with a swastika on her forehead. Some cars honked as they drove south along Kennedy Boulevard. They strung across the crosswalk at Kennedy and Franklin Street during red lights, but didn’t block traffic.