Gov. Ron DeSantis raised the stakes in the bruising COVID vaccine war with the Biden administration Monday by vowing to fine local governments if they force their employees to be inoculated against the coronavirus.
His proposed penalty: a hefty $5,000 per episode, potentially millions of dollars statewide.
In a heavily choreographed news conference — filled with applause and cheers like a political rally — DeSantis claimed vaccine requirements will cost people their jobs and he will not allow it.
But DeSantis’ threats did not immediately dissuade local governments with vaccine mandates, and health experts shot down his contention that patients who have recovered from COVID-19 have “natural immunity” and don’t need vaccines.
The skirmish came just three days after President Joe Biden ordered the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to produce rules mandating U.S. businesses with 100 or more employees to require shots for their workers if they decline to get tested.
Speaking Monday in the Alachua County community of Newberry, DeSantis accused Biden of expanding his presidential powers by launching “overreaching” programs designed to abate the sharp spikes in coronavirus infections and deaths.
“It’s beyond just a mandate,” DeSantis said. “They go back and find statutes from decades ago. They take that as a pretext for expansions of policy. … Congress never legislated that.”
“Nobody should lose their job over this issue,” DeSantis added. He called vaccine mandates “very intrusive” and “illegal.”
“This is political. It’s about using government power to control. We’re going to protect these jobs, we’re going to protect livelihoods and we’re going to protect families,” he said. “These big government mandates strip away people’s rights to make the best decision for themselves, but we are going to protect Floridians from federal and local government overreach.”
Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email that it would fall to the state Department of Health to start enforcing the no-vaccine rule effective Thursday,
South Florida medical experts said Monday that the central objective of policymakers should be shielding the public from infections.
“Research has not yet shown how long you are protected from getting COVID-19 again after you recover,” the CDC says. One study showed that unvaccinated people who already had COVID-19 are more than two times as likely as fully vaccinated people to get COVID-19 again,” the CDC reports on its website.
Dr. Joanna L. Drowos, associate chair of the Integrated Medical Science Department at Florida International University, said businesses should follow the CDC guidelines when it comes to prior COVID infections because its recommendation is based on science.
“It’s not the same as being vaccinated,” Drowos said. “When you get infected, you get a specific strain and your body makes antibodies for the virus you saw.
“Immunity is complicated. There are Bcells and Tcells involved too, and that is why vaccines are better in giving you long term immune memory to fight infection in the future. Vaccines are doing a great job in protecting people against getting severely sick or hospitalized.”
In an office setting, the level of transmission in someone who has had COVID and natural immunity compared with someone vaccinated will differ.
Dr. Monica Ghandi, professor of medicine at UCSF/ San Francisco General Hospital, said science on the delta variant shows someone who is vaccinated has a lower viral load than someone who is not vaccinated and has only natural immunity.
She said there is mixed data about natural immunity and how much protection it could give someone in the workplace. “No one should make definitive statement one way or the other because I don’t think we know.”
“There are a bunch of ways people get COVID — mild or severe — and you may have more protection after a severe infection than a mild one,” she said. In light of vaccine mandates, Ghandi believes the U.S. should adopt the approach that European countries are taking — one vaccine dose after an infection. “This is a compromise for everyone.”
Local mandates already in progress
Many local governments in South Florida have already started to require employees to become inoculated, as well as new hires before they start their jobs.
They include firefighters in Pembroke Pines and City Hall workers in Weston. In Oakland Park, all applicants for city staff positions must show proof of vaccination prior to starting.
Don Decker, city manager and CEO of Weston, declined to comment on the governor’s position because he had not reviewd it with the city’s lawyers.
“I can say that we did not have anyone quit when we announced the policy, which included exemptions [and additional testing requirements] for those who had health or religious objections,” Decker said. “We have not had any terminations.”
Plantation also is requiring its police and city employees to get the vaccine. Jason R. Nunemaker, chief administrative officer, said Monday that the city is “evaluating the governor’s recent comments.”
The Broward Sheriff’s Office has a policy that all non-union members in the office show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination by mid-October. Thus far, Broward and Palm Beach County governments have not decided on any mandates for tens of thousands of their public employees.
Delray Beach is the only city in Palm Beach County to mandate vaccinations for employees. But Mayor Shelly Petrolia believes they won’t be affected by the governor’s threats since those who refuse the vaccine have the option to submit to weekly testing.
She said roughly 85% of city employees have been vaccinated. Petrolia added that she wasn’t aware of any employees who have quit over the city’s mandate.
But other counties to the north have imposed mandates, raising protests from workers and conservative politicians.
Orange County is one of several county governments with a mandate for employees. DeSantis said the fines could reach into the millions of dollars.
He made his announcement in Alachua County, where workers for the city of Gainesville are suing over that city’s mandate.
Maria Bernard, a paramedic who’s worked for Orange County Fire/Rescue for 17 years, spoke at the DeSantis event. She and her husband, also a firefighter, have already contracted and recovered from COVID-19 and don’t want to get the vaccine.
Her ability to keep up with her mortgage will be affected if they both lose their jobs after Sept. 30, Orange County’s deadline for workers to get the vaccine, she said.
“Why is our freedom to chose what we do with our body no longer a human right?” Bernard said. “If this mandate continues not only will we lose our freedom of choice, but we will lose our jobs and our livelihood.”
DeSantis cited a new law passed this year by the Legislature that prohibits businesses, local governments and schools from requiring customers, residents and students from showing proof of vaccination — so-called “vaccine passports” — to receive services.
The law, however, does not specifically prohibit those entities from requiring workers to get vaccines.
“A governmental entity … may not require persons to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the governmental entity’s operations in this state,” the law reads.
The governor’s office “may have a problem” if it intends to travel under the law barring vaccine passports, said Michael Elkins, a Fort Lauderdale labor-employment attorney who represents local governments.
Both DeSantis’ executive order from June and the subsequently passed law barring passports “don’t specifically reference employees,” he said.
“They seem to be aimed at protecting a citizen’s use of [government] services and access to governmental buildings versus prohibiting employee vaccinations,” Elkins said.
But Attorney General Ashley Moody, who spoke at the event Monday, filed a brief in support of the Gainesville city workers suing the city over its vaccine requirement. She argues that the law covers workers, not just residents and customers.
“The term ‘operations’ is broad enough to include the hiring and firing of City employees, who are integral to running a government, and the term ‘persons’ is sufficiently capacious to include City employees,” the brief reads.
Mandate for businesses new flash point
Last Friday, large private sector employers nationwide were placed on notice by the Biden administration that they will eventually be required to ensure that all employees are vaccinated — except in instances where the law allows religious and medical exceptions.
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The battle of executive orders between Washington and Tallahassee has long caused headaches for Florida companies ranging from cruise lines and airlines to hospitality and professional service firms.
Many companies produced an array of different mandates, economic incentives and programs of encouragement.
But Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said DeSantis is also exploring what to do about mandates at private businesses.
“We’re looking at all legal options to protect the rights of employees,” she said.
Sun Sentinel writer Wells Dusenberry and Orlando Sentinel writers Gray Rohrer, Stephen Hudak and Ryan Gillespie contributed to this report.