TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Private businesses in Florida will be forced to let workers opt out of coronavirus vaccine mandates after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping legislative package Thursday to combat White House virus rules.
DeSantis, a Republican, signed the bills into law at a ceremony alongside leaders of the GOP-controlled statehouse and other state officials who said they were protecting people from burdensome federal vaccination requirements.
"We're making sure that people have a right to earn a living, people have a right to have protections in their place of employment and that parents have protections to be able to direct the upbringing of their kids,” DeSantis said to cheers.
The signing ceremony closed a three-day special legislative session called by DeSantis as he continues a campaign against vaccine mandates pushed by the White House. The governor, who is running for reelection and eyeing a potential 2024 presidential run, has become one of the nation's most prominent Republicans through his opposition to lockdowns and other virus rules.
The new law prevents businesses from having vaccine mandates unless they allow workers to opt out for medical reasons, religious beliefs, immunity based on a previous infection, regular testing or an agreement to wear protective gear. The state health department, which is led by Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who opposes mandates, will have authority to define exemption standards.
“It completely pushes back against this belief that some of our leadership has been trying to put forward, that you don't control your body, that your body belongs to Doctor Fauci, and he gets to decide what you do with your body, what you put on your face, what your kids get to do,” Ladapo said of the legislation.
The bill also includes fines for businesses that fire a worker without allowing the exemptions. Additionally, it bars schools and governments from having vaccine mandates and allows parents to sue schools with masking requirements. A separate bill blocks the public release of records regarding state investigations of vaccine policies in businesses.
Democrats have criticized the bills as politically motivated and dangerous to public health.
"Laissez-faire epidemiology and outright disinformation have contributed to Florida’s horrific death toll, and it’s shameful that some choose to politicize an epidemic for their own ambition,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat.
Another bill signed by DeSantis prevents the state health officer from being able to mandate vaccines during a public health emergency. He also approved a bill directing the state to begin considering a withdrawal from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which drafted White House vaccine requirements for private businesses with more than 100 employees.
The location of the bill signing ceremony itself represented another jab at Biden. DeSantis held the event at a car dealership in the small Tampa suburb of Brandon, a reference to the chants of “Let's go Brandon” that have become a coded stand-in for “F—- Joe Biden” among conservatives. The governor smiled when asked if the location was a move to troll the president, saying “I think that Brandon, Florida is a great American city" as a crowd of about 250 supporters chanted “Let's go Brandon.”
The new legislation, which passed easily in the statehouse, came as the state simultaneously wages legal battles against federal vaccine mandates. Florida has sued the White House over a requirement that federal contractors be vaccinated against COVID-19 and over the vaccine mandate for businesses. This week, the state filed another suit in an attempt to block a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for health care workers.
In a statement after the bills were signed, Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat, said the legislation was meant to serve the governor's possible political ambitions.
“Businesses are trying to survive during the ongoing pandemic and the governor, with the support of the Republican legislature, is hampering their operations," she said. "The bills from the special session are anti-business and engaged legislators as extras in the governor’s sideshow to boost his profile as he hopes to become president."