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Gov. DeSantis Targets COVID-19 'Passports,' Signs Liability Bill

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs first bill of 2021 legislative session
News Service of Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the first bill of the 2021 legislative session.

TALLAHASSEE --- Pointing to privacy concerns, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday he will issue emergency rules this week that prevent businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccinations through COVID-19 “passports” and will ask the Legislature to pass a permanent ban.

“It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” DeSantis said. “If you want to go to the movie theater, should you have to show that? No. If you want to go to a game, no. If you want to go to a theme park, no. … I think it’s something that people have certain freedoms and individual liberties to make decisions for themselves.”

DeSantis said he thought vaccine passports would create “huge” privacy issues that could result in people handing over medical information to a “big corporation.”

“You want the fox to guard the henhouse, I mean give me a break,” the Republican governor said during an event at the Capitol in which he signed a bill (SB 72) that will shield businesses and health-care providers from lawsuits related to COVID-19.

As of Sunday, 3,141,836 people in Florida had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, through either two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to state data. Another 2,537,765 people had received one shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and were awaiting their second doses.

DeSantis said that while he would use his emergency powers to prevent businesses from requiring customers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, he also wants the Legislature to pass a bill during the ongoing legislative session.

“We need the Legislature to come in and just say this is not happening in Florida,” said DeSantis, noting that emergency orders expire. “I think it would provide a lot of certainty to a lot of people to say that..”

DeSantis’ comments came after news reports that the Biden administration is considering pushing federal agencies and private companies to develop a program that would allow people to show they have been vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, airline trade organizations and airline labor unions sent a letter to the Biden administration’s asking that the United States set some kind of standards for traveling.

The European Union also has announced that it plans to issue a “Digital Green Certificate” that will allow European Union citizens to freely travel across member nations. The certificates will prove that people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, have already recovered from the virus or have tested negative. The goal is for the Digital Green certificates to be in play by summer.

In Israel, people who are vaccinated or who already have been infected by COVID-19 can get a “green pass” from the Health Ministry. The app allows them access to gyms, theaters and clubs.

DeSantis said lawmakers could include the ban on COVID-19 passports as part of bills they are considering related to the pandemic, including bills that would limit gubernatorial power and local-government authority.

The idea of having to show proof of vaccinations is not new. Florida requires children in public and private schools to be vaccinated against several diseases or submit written religious exemptions.

DeSantis’s remarks about COVID-19 passports came as he signed the liability bill, which received final legislative approval Friday. DeSantis was joined by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, among others. The ceremonial event kicked off in an unusual way to the Beatles and Joe Cocker tune, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” performed by a band called Highway 85.

The liability proposal was a top priority for GOP legislative leaders who had been pressed to shield businesses from lawsuits since the beginning of the pandemic. It was the first bill from the 2021 legislative session that DeSantis signed into law.

The law provides protections to businesses across the state, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities that were closed to visitors for nearly six months. But the law, which took effect immediately, will last for only one year. Lawmakers would have to pass additional legislation to extend the protections beyond March 29, 2022.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where people are scared of being sued just for doing normal things,” DeSantis said. “We worked very early on to look and see ways we could provide some certainty for both business and health-care providers. This was obviously a top priority for many of us up here.”

The law establishes new rules about personal-injury lawsuits related to COVID-19. The law, for example, requires people who are not alleging medical malpractice or violations of nursing-home resident rights to have physicians sign affidavits stating that the defendants caused the injuries or damages.

Business owners would be immune from liability if courts determine they made good-faith efforts to substantially comply with government-issued health standards or guidance.

In pursuing COVID-19 medical-malpractice claims or nursing home-related claims, people filing lawsuits would not need to obtain physician affidavits. But they would be required to prove that the health care providers’ actions were grossly negligent, which is a higher legal threshold than normal. Health care providers that substantially complied with authoritative or applicable government-issued health standards or guidance related to COVID-19 would also have immunity.

Simpson praised DeSantis for his handling of COVID-19, which has infected more than 2 million Floridians and killed 33,247 residents.

“This governor had a vision, as soon as we shut down, about how do we reopen safely?” Simpson said. “How do we protect our most vulnerable? How do we get our economy moving? That shows up in every metric and every set of numbers we can derive from the pandemic. So, this governor has shown great leadership. We had businesses, front-line workers in health care, that in the face of the tragedy they were facing last March, April and May, had to go to work every day, had to prepare, had less PPE (personal protective equipment) than they would have preferred to have had. This bill is essential to make sure we protected those folks.”

Christine Sexton / News Service of Florida
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