DeSantis calls for special legislative session to ban vaccine mandates in Florida

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called Thursday for a special legislative session next month to erect roadblocks against COVID-19 vaccination mandates being advanced by the White House.

Legislative leaders said they might use the session to pull away from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has worked on rules to require vaccinations for many workers across the country.

Meanwhile, Democrats criticized DeSantis over his call for a special session, noting that the state’s economic rebound was bolstered by companies such as Disney, which is requiring employees to be vaccinated. Democrats also described DeSantis’ requested legislation as "anti-business," "big government," "soft on COVID," and "premature," since some potential vaccination mandates are still being crafted.

At a news conference in Clearwater, DeSantis said he's working with Attorney General Ashley Moody to build a legal case to contest any federal mandates, but the state can’t wait for the 2022 legislative session, which begins in January, to "strengthen" state law.

"We want to make sure that individuals in Florida have their livelihoods and their jobs protected," DeSantis said while backed by people holding signs saying "Freedom has a home here" and "Don’t tread on Florida" --- a sign that featured an alligator instead of a snake.

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The governor’s office released a list of requests for the special session that didn’t include directly trying to ban federal vaccination mandates in Florida.

But, for example, the list includes allowing people fired for refusing employer-required COVID-19 vaccinations to be eligible for unemployment compensation; seeking to "reaffirm" that government entities, including school districts, can’t fire employees based upon their vaccine status; and removing COVID-19 liability protections for businesses that fire employees based on vaccination requirements.

Lawmakers and DeSantis approved the liability protections this spring to help shield businesses from lawsuits over people getting infected with COVID-19.

"We provided probably the strongest COVID liability protection anywhere in the country very early on, and we were glad to do that," DeSantis said.

"And I think that that was something that allowed a lot of businesses to breathe a sigh of relief," DeSantis continued. "But I must say that having done that, to now see some of those same businesses, who were complaining about potential liability, turn around and want to fire employees over these injections, I kind of feel like they're stabbing us in the back after we were standing up for them."

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Among other proposals, DeSantis wants to allow fired workers to sue employers that fail to provide notice of religious and health exemptions to vaccination requirements; prevent businesses from enforcing "non-compete" agreements against employees fired for their COVID-19 status; and expand parental rights in school health-care decisions.

It was not clear Thursday when a special session would be held. Lawmakers are scheduled to be in Tallahassee for pre-session committee meetings the weeks of Nov. 1, Nov. 15 and Nov. 29.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, issued a joint statement that said "Florida will respond to this gross overreach by the federal government."

One proposal they said could be considered is withdrawing the state from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That would involve establishing a state program for worker safety.

"We believe that by doing so, Florida will have the ability to alleviate onerous federal regulations placed on employers and employees," Sprowls and Simpson said in the statement. "During the upcoming special session, our goal is to make our laws even more clear that Florida stands as refuge for families and businesses who want to live in freedom."

Democrats said the proposals would result in costly litigation for the state. They said DeSantis, widely mentioned as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has been campaigning against the White House all year on COVID-19 measures.

"Yet again, Gov. DeSantis is troublingly more focused on scoring political points with his base than on the health and safety of Florida," Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said. "At every turn throughout the pandemic, the governor has rejected science, further endangering the lives of hardworking people across the state. Florida deserves leadership that will promote truth and facts, not more reckless politics with human lives on the line."

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, in a conference call with other House Democrats, said DeSantis is competing with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as they eye the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

"They have been trying to out-compete each other at this race to the bottom from issues ranging with immigration to masks to vaccines to abortion.," Eskamani said.

On Tuesday, proposals intended to block any entity, including hospitals and other businesses, from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations in Texas failed after business groups objected.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said DeSantis is hurting the economy and not following science with the proposals.

"The policies that he is calling for in this special session, frankly, would invade the rights and the freedoms of our small businesses, many of which are owned by families, to do what they need to do to keep their businesses open," Driskell said.

In August, the Biden administration announced it would require workers in nursing homes that receive Medicare and Medicaid to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a plan that was later expanded to hospitals. Last month, the White House Safer Federal Workforce Task Force released guidance that set a Dec. 8 deadline for employees of most federal contractors to get vaccinated.

Also in September, the White House directed OSHA to write rules that would require employers with 100 or more workers to vaccinate their staff members against COVID-19 or test those who aren’t vaccinated at least once a week.

Responding to a tweet about DeSantis’ special session call, White House Assistant Press Secretary Kevin Munoz replied, "There are leaders who want to get the pandemic over with and then there’s this."

Joining DeSantis at the Clearwater event, Moody called the federal proposals "unlawful and unwise" and said Florida will continue to "push back in court" against the mandates.

State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo also raised questions about the vaccines.

"Well, the vaccine mandates, as we now know, these vaccines are not preventing transmission," Ladapo said. "So sure, they reduce the likelihood of transmission. And even that is sort of questionable, depending on how far out you go. But they're not preventing it."