DeSantis brings back Florida lawmakers to crack down on pandemic mandates

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A special legislative session dubbed "Keep Florida Free" begins Monday at the behest of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants lawmakers to pass more measures to block coronavirus vaccine mandates by public and private employers.

The four bills being considered would ratchet up the penalties for businesses, local governments and other entities that require workers to be vaccinated against the virus and students to wear masks in school. According to DeSantis, a Republican, the session will strengthen as well as augment rules already in place - in part through his own executive orders.

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"At the end of the day, we want people to be able to make informed decisions for themselves, but we've got to stop bossing people around," DeSantis said last week as he officially announced his 2022 re-election bid. "We've got to stop the coercion. We've got to stop trying to browbeat people."

By again calling legislators back to Tallahassee, he added, "We're going to be striking a blow for freedom."

But some say the governor has gone from fighting the coronavirus to fighting efforts to combat it. This week's special session is the second one this year, and even in the GOP-controlled legislature, not all Republicans are on board.

"I support freedom for businesses to make sure they're successful," Senate President-Designate Kathleen Passidomo said recently.

Democrats have been highly critical of the gathering. DeSantis and his allies "want to throw some red meat to the base and keep them happy," said State Rep. Michael Grieco of Miami Beach. "Decisions are being made based on politics, not based on the well-being and health and safety of Floridians."

Though the governor initially supported the vaccines when they became available early this year, he now calls them "jabs" and promotes stories about individuals who claim to have been harmed by them. His new state surgeon general refuses to wear a mask and says that when it comes to being vaccinated against coronavirus, "people need to continue and stick with their intuition and their sensibilities."

Physician Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and a leading expert on the virus, calls DeSantis part of an "anti-science aggression" that is making it more difficult to combat the pandemic.

"We've lost 150,000 unvaccinated Americans since June 1 whose lives could have been saved if they'd been vaccinated," Hotez said Monday. "And we're about to lose another 50,000 by the end of the year based on projections. And this is happening because of misinformation or disinformation."

The governor, who publicly announced in April that he got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but has declined to say whether he has since gotten the recommended booster shot, portrays himself as standing up to federal overreach and vows to protect workers' rights from vaccine mandates by the Biden administration and public and private employers. The state sued the Biden administration in late October over its vaccine mandate for federal contractors.

"So I call the special session of the legislature to be able to address this because we need to protect Floridians, we need to make sure that people can put food on the table and that their livelihoods aren't dependent on whether or not they do the jab or the booster, whatever may come down the pike," DeSantis said. "You can't fire people based off this jab. That's true in the private sector. It's also true with the public sector."

One bill being considered in Tallahassee this week would put Medicare- and Medicaid-certified hospitals and nursing homes in a Catch-22: required by a new federal rule to have employees get vaccinated, yet prohibited from doing the same by the state.

Many private employers in Florida, including Walt Disney Co., one of the largest, previously issued employee vaccine requirements as the delta variant surged in Florida starting midsummer. The fines they're risking would increase from the current $5,000 per violation to $10,000 for a small business and $50,000 for businesses with over 100 workers. So far, the state has only fined public entities.

State lawmakers who crafted the latest proposal left out some of what DeSantis wanted, instead including provisions similar to what the federal government outlines.

The bills would give employers the option of allowing exemptions for workers who cite religious or medical reasons; proof of prior infection; agree to periodic testing; or wear personal protective equipment.

Though DeSantis wanted to further punish businesses that issue vaccine mandates by removing covid-liability protections, the proposed legislation does not address that.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce, whose members are usually enthusiastic supporters of DeSantis, has been more muted on his latest moves.

"While Washington has gone too far, Florida has a chance to provide both certainty and flexibility for private employers to safely manage their workplace," Mark Wilson, the group's president and chief executive, said in a statement Wednesday.

Congressional Democrats from Florida reacted to DeSantis's plans for the special session with a legislative effort of their own. On Nov. 5, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach introduced the Let Our Cities And Local businesses Help Employees Achieve Long-Term Health Act - a lengthy title that results in the acronym LOCAL HEALTH. The bill would let local governments and private businesses take their own covid-prevention actions, including vaccine and mask mandates, regardless of the governors' pronouncements.

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said local governments can't "pick and choose" which state laws to follow.

"Per the U.S. Constitution, states have rights," Pushaw wrote in an email. "Individuals also have rights. But local government entities do not have the 'right' to overrule states or trample on individual rights. Neither do businesses."

While DeSantis fights the Biden administration and many in his own state over pandemic-related measures, transmission of the virus has plummeted in Florida in recent weeks. School districts that issued mask mandates despite his edict are canceling or modifying them.

Kevin Wagner, chair of the political science department at Florida Atlantic University, noted that DeSantis's approval ratings are going up even as Biden's fall in the state.

"For Gov. DeSantis, opposition to the president ... is politically astute in the sense that it motivates his base," Wagner said. "Politically, he seems to have navigated this in a way that has shored up his support among the base."

DeSantis has to strike some kind of balance between taking actions against businesses that defy him and keeping their support, he added, but so far he's threading that needle.

"The election is a long way off," Wagner said. "But overall, his numbers look formidable for anyone attempting to unseat him."

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