Florida threatens to fine Special Olympics $27 million over vaccination requirement

Special Olympics dropped the mandate after getting a Health Department warning.

June 3, 2022, 4:45 PM

The State of Florida threatened the Special Olympics with a fine of $27 million because of the organization's requirement that all athletes competing in the games in Orlando this weekend be vaccinated for COVID-19.

In a letter sent to Special Olympics International, the Florida Department of Health informed the organization that its vaccine requirement conflicted with existing Florida law, which prohibits any business from asking for proof of vaccination.

The letter, which was first obtained by ABC News, was sent to the Special Olympics on Thursday night.

PHOTO: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at Miami's Freedom Tower, May 9, 2022.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at Miami's Freedom Tower, May 9, 2022.
Marta Lavandier/AP, FILE

Shortly after receiving that letter, the Special Olympics posted an update on its website, saying it was "lifting the vaccine requirement for delegation members" attending the games after repeated demands from Florida officials.

Unvaccinated athletes who were previously unable to compete will now be allowed to play, the organization continued.

"We don't want to fight. We want to play," the Special Olympics' statement concluded.

The $27 million fine would have been the largest in Florida's history for an alleged violation of the state's ban on so-called "vaccine passports." In 2021, the Florida legislature, at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis, passed a law that prevented any business from asking "patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or postinfection recovery."

Florida officials said they became aware of the vaccine requirement after hearing complaints from family members of Special Olympics athletes nationwide, who complained to DeSantis' office that they had been disqualified from the games.

"We want everyone to be able to compete," DeSantis said at a press conference Friday to announce the vaccine requirement had been lifted. "Finally, we can report that all the athletes will be able to compete. This will be a relief for a lot of the athletes."

At the press conference, DeSantis was joined by the family of golfer Isabella Valle, who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and a shunt in her brain. Her mother, Elaine Valle, said her daughter was disqualified from the games because she is unvaccinated, despite Isabella's neurologist recommending against taking the vaccine because of her unique condition.

Valle has now been cleared to play after the vaccine requirement was lifted.

The Special Olympics, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that vaccines save lives, particularly in people with intellectual disabilities, who are at high risk for COVID complications and death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the COVID vaccine for people with disabilities who "may be at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19."

DeSantis and Florida's first lady, Casey DeSantis, are both honorary co-chairs of the 2022 Special Olympics.

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