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Florida Legislature’s special session is a COVID-19 sideshow | Editorial
The session is sure to embolden anti-vaxxers, confuse businesses and undermine public health.
Members of the Florida House of Representatives during a legislative session in April. The Legislature will meet in special session beginning Monday to consider bans on vaccine mandates. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Members of the Florida House of Representatives during a legislative session in April. The Legislature will meet in special session beginning Monday to consider bans on vaccine mandates. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 14, 2021
Updated Nov. 14, 2021

Florida lawmakers will convene Monday for a special legislative session, and the big question is: Why? With Florida’s COVID-19 numbers moving in the right direction, with vaccines becoming more available and with society returning to a fuller sense of normal, now is the time to seal the deal — not to jeopardize progress against the pandemic by incentivizing anti-vaxxers and creating chaos for businesses.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called the special session in October, and he has occupied himself for weeks railing against vaccine mandates and threatening to strike against both employers and the Biden administration for what he characterizes as an assault on freedom. Last week, he called the slate of vaccine-related bills “probably the strongest protections for both private and public sector employees anywhere in the country,” but they are nothing of the sort. The legislation only inspires irresponsible Floridians to continue endangering public health by refusing to get vaccinated.

What’s most telling is that the governor caved in the face of the pushback he’s received from the state’s largest employers. Last month, DeSantis said he wanted businesses to be held liable for any medical harm arising from a mandatory vaccination. He also wanted to open up employers to COVID-related lawsuits if they required employees be vaccinated. Neither of those ideas are contained in the bills released last week.

The moves allow the governor to make it seem like he is playing tough with employers and with a Democratic president, while including enough weasel language not to make a real stand.

The legislative proposals, though, come with some real-world flaws. They bar school districts from imposing mask mandates or requiring quarantines in some cases for students exposed to COVID-19 despite whatever’s happening in their communities. And they create a new enforcement mechanism and inducements for parents to challenge these school safety protocols in court.

This rhetorical defense of freedom sets up the potential for mixed messaging and another legal showdown over whether the state or federal government has jurisdiction of employee health and safety. If passed, the measures could make Florida law conflict with both federal statute and new COVID rules imposed by the Biden administration that require businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate that their workers be vaccinated.

At the very least, the legislation would create confusion, red tape and new costs for businesses that have put vaccination requirements in place. Employers would have to offer several vaccine opt-outs to employees, including accommodating “periodic testing” at “no cost to the employee.” Companies that don’t comply could face thousands of dollars in fines. This will only embolden anti-vaxxers to continue holding out. And it creates an uncertain environment for litigation just as companies are struggling to recover.

Is anything driving this exercise beyond political opportunism? Infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Florida are trending downward. Fewer tests are coming back positive. The federal government has authorized booster shots for older adults, and earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those ages 5 through 11 years, clearing the way to inoculate 28 million children in this age group. Employers have done their part by mandating vaccines, a move that’s helped enormously to make workplaces and society safer. In Florida, despite the governor’s harassment, school districts in many large, urban metros helped contain the outbreak at the beginning of the fall semester with mask mandates, and most eased those rules as the situation warranted. So what is the governor trying to accomplish, and why the urgency of a special session, when the Legislature will already meet in January?

Simple: DeSantis is playing beat-the-clock, seizing a narrow window to further politicize a health crisis that by many accounts is on the wane. This may be the most cynical ploy in his mismanagement of the pandemic yet. Legislators should not display the same bad judgment to indulge him.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.