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Florida lawmakers take aim at vaccination requirements

Florida Legislature State of the State 2021.jpeg
Ivy Ceballo via Miami Herald
Gov. Ron DeSantis is applauded before delivering his State of the State address during a joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 2.

Identical measures to give Florida workers grounds to avoid employer-required COVID-19 vaccinations started to advance Monday in the House and Senate as lawmakers opened a special legislative session.

The Republican-dominated House Commerce Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee backed bills (HB 1B and SB 2-B) that would require employers to offer exemptions from vaccination requirements. Workers, for example, could cite exemptions for medical or religious reasons. The bills also would set aside $5 million for the state’s legal battles against federal vaccination mandates.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, said it balances the rights of people to make health-care decisions with the ability of employers to operate their businesses.

“This legislation inserts some common sense into the confusion and contradictions we've seen coming out of Washington,” Burgess said.

Burgess, who said he is vaccinated against COVID-19, credited “modern medical science” in addressing the pandemic, which hit the state in early 2020 and has killed nearly 61,000 Florida residents.

“This virus started in China and it's going to end here in America, because we were able to do a miracle in producing something (vaccines) like what we have done in such a short turnaround,” Burgess said. “But it's exactly that short turnaround that we also need to ease into this. We need to understand people's doubts, people's concerns and feelings.”

Democrats described the special session as “political theater” intended to bolster Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has sparred for months with the Biden administration about COVID-19 policies. Critics also called the proposal “flawed” and “rushed” and said it is “vague.”

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, pointed to part of the bill that included “anticipated pregnancy” as an allowed medical exemption. She said the exemption could be deemed to cover “any women of childbearing age.”

Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami Beach, questioned the need for the legislation and said it will add to confusion for business owners, who face a pending federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that would require tens of millions of workers to be vaccinated or submit to COVID-19 tests and wear masks. That rule would apply to employers with 100 or more workers.

Republican leaders have agreed on four proposals that are expected to speed through the legislative session, which was called by DeSantis and is scheduled to end Thursday.

The full House will take up the measures Tuesday. The Senate Appropriations Committee will consider the proposals Tuesday before they go to the full Senate on Wednesday.

Florida has filed lawsuits challenging Biden administration vaccination requirements for employees of federal contractors and the requirements for employers with 100 or more workers. The Biden administration wants the requirements to take effect Jan. 4.

Rep. Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who is helping sponsor the House bill on vaccine mandates, called the OSHA rules an “exceptional federal overreach.”

Under the legislation, workers could avoid vaccination requirements if they provide medical reasons, religious reasons or can demonstrate “COVID-19 immunity.” Also, they could be exempt if they agree to regular COVID-19 testing or agree to wear personal protective equipment.

The proposal, in part, would also seek to reinforce an already-existing law to prevent government employers from requiring workers to be vaccinated. In addition, it would provide $5 million to the attorney general’s office to investigate complaints and take legal action to stop the federal enforcement of vaccination mandates.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the money is needed as court proceedings are moving rapidly.

“A lot of the questions and the uncertainty around the questions of what's happening on vaccines and COVID have to do with the courts,” Sprowls told reporters Monday. “The fact that we're involved in active litigation, we want to move that as quickly and as successfully as possible. So, we want to make sure the attorney general has all the resources she needs.”

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, labeled the funding for the federal fight a “slush fund.”

The Senate committee rejected three amendments proposed by Polsky, including one that would have allowed employers to question the “sincerity of a particular (religious) belief.”

Burgess acknowledged the religious exemption is “broad” but said he doesn’t want to get into a fight over whether people’s beliefs are valid.

“I think it's one that we as Americans hold dear and recognize is important to who we are as a nation,” Burgess said. “It's something that we've always believed in. And I think that's something that we need to uphold here, as not just in case law, but in principle.”

The legislation would also seek to bolster a law passed this spring known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights. It would seek to make “clear” parents have the sole discretion about whether children wear masks in school or are vaccinated. The legislation also would prohibit quarantining of asymptomatic students and teachers. Those changes come after legal battles between the state and school districts about whether students should be required to wear masks.

Most of the new rules would expire on June 1, 2023.