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Florida's special session: About protections from 'federal overreach' or 'vehicle for misinformation'?

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People carry signs, as several hundred anti-mandate demonstrators rally outside the Florida Capitol during a special legislative session considering bills targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
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AP
People carry signs, as several hundred anti-mandate demonstrators rally outside the Capitol during a special legislative session considering bills targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Tallahassee. Florida Republicans passed legislation to blunt coronavirus vaccine mandates in businesses as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis' push to combat White House virus rules. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Florida Republican lawmakers said employees need protections against being fired for not getting vaccinated. Democrats called it political theater casting doubt on COVID-19 vaccines.

The fate of legislation considered by Florida lawmakers during their special session last week was never in question. However, one Democratic senator worries about the intent and effect of the new laws.

"I felt that this legislation is a vehicle for misinformation," said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

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Polsky sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was the first stop for what would become the law banning companies from requiring employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs.

"Overall, the special session was very upsetting in that these bills and those who testified were promoting anti-vax rhetoric," she said.

The law mandates that companies must provide a series of exemptions for employees to opt-out of the shot.

Tina Polsky
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Florida State Sen. Tina Polsky speaks during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as part of a special legislative session targeting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Polsky said she believes passage of the law marks a state policy casting doubt on COVID-19 vaccines: "I think that's a very good way to put it, yes."

"The purpose of the legislation is to make sure that employees, Florida residents and citizens have the opportunity to be able to have options other than just simply the vaccine," said Rep. Tom Fabricio, R-Miramar, who is vaccinated.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called for the special legislative session in late October and, before lawmakers gathered in Tallahassee last week, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a rule requiring all employers in the country with at least 100 workers to mandate they be vaccinated or risk being fined.

I felt that this legislation is a vehicle for misinformation.
Sen. Tina Polsky (D-Boca Raton)

OSHA is not enforcing the rule after a federal appeals court ordered it to stop. The court is considering the constitutionality of the rule.

Gov. DeSantis and Republican leaders wanted to preempt any federal vaccine mandate for workers.

It took about 48 hours to pass the legislation almost along party lines. Two Democrats joined House Republicans in supporting the ban on vaccinate-or-be-fired policies. No Democrats in the Senate supported it.

Jeanette Nuñez-Portrait.jpeg
State of Florida
Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez's official state portrait.

"What was really our objective from day one was to protect Floridians, to protect employees from losing their jobs and to really stand on the side of Floridians' rights," said Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez.

So while the federal vaccine mandate for employees is in legal limbo, companies with a vaccine requirement in Florida must allow workers to skip getting the shots if they claim medical or religious exemptions or if they previously had the virus and can show they have "immunity to COVID-19," as the law states.

The law also allows workers to not get vaccinated if they are tested occasionally. The final exemption is, if an employee agrees to use personal protective equipment while at work.

What was really our objective from day one was to...protect employees from losing their jobs.
Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez

The Texas governor issued an executive order banning employer vaccine mandates, but Florida is the first state to put it into law.

"What we've been doing as part of our overall public health strategy is making sure that people have access to information, that they're educated, that they can make decisions for themselves," Nuñez said.

Polsky described the intent of protecting individual rights as "a sham."

"What is this public health emergency that we're in? It's a community working together to keep everyone safe," Polsky said.

Earlier this month, Polsky received hateful and threatening voice mails after a scheduled October meeting with Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo. He was not wearing a face covering and she asked him to put one on. Polsky was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in August. Ladapo offered to meet outside. Polsky rejected that invitation and asked Ladapo to leave because he refused to wear a mask. He did.

One of the largest employers in Florida no longer requires its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Disney dropped its mandate Friday.

Under Disney’s former vaccine rule, workers could opt out for medical or religious reasons. The new Florida law expands the types of exemptions employees can now use to avoid getting a jab for their job.

Tom Fabricio (1).jpeg
Florida House of Representatives - Robert Hunter
Rep. Tom Fabricio (R-Miramar) on the Florida House floor, April 13, 2021.

"There can be a safe workplace," Fabricio said.

He called the original guidelines for companies from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "good."

"But they weren't as broad as we had hoped that they would be for exceptions, (which) could be broadened and employers and employees could find a middle ground," he said.

The EEOC guidelines allow for an employee to opt-out of a company's vaccine requirement for medical or religious reasons. Florida's new law expands the types of exemptions employees may use to avoid getting vaccinated.

"In the state of Florida, we pride ourselves on on trying to be a state that reduces regulation and removes burdensome regulations from their midst," said Nuñez, "but I do believe that individual rights trump business [and] trump government."

Fabricio called the OSHA vaccine rule "the straw that broke the camel's back because that was a serious federal overreach."

The law banning company-mandated COVID-19 vaccines without providing for a list of exemptions expires June 1, 2023.

"I sure as hell hope that we're not dealing with COVID-19 in the summer of 2023," Polsky said.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.