TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Department of Health says it will issue $5,000 fines to businesses, government agencies and government institutions that violate the state's ban on so-called COVID-19 "vaccine passports."
The state agency published the rule, entitled "Penalties for COVID-19 Vaccine Documentation Requirements," which is set to take effect September 16, 2021.
The rule would impose the $5,000 fine "per individual and separate violation," and would require that the fines be paid within 30 days.
"Promises made, promises kept," DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said Wednesday.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state's only statewide elected Democrat and a candidate hoping to challenge DeSantis for governor next year, was critical of the fines.
"Governor DeSantis is retaliating against Floridians who are trying to protect themselves and their communities from COVID-19," Fried said in an emailed statement. "This not only goes against common sense — it’s also an insult to the free market principles that he claims to champion."
The fine does not affect businesses that mandate vaccines for their employees. Florida is an at-will employment state, and unless you're under contract or in a union, employees have few legal rights and can be terminated for just about anything, legal experts say.
Employment Lawyer Cynthia Sass of Sass Law Firm in Tampa said those reasons can include refusing a vaccine if an employer requires it.
DeSantis said requiring proof of vaccinations would create "huge" privacy issues that could result in people handing over medical information to a "big corporation."
"It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society," the governor said before signing his executive order. "If you want to go to the movie theater, should you have to show that? No. If you want to go to a game, no. If you want to go to a theme park, no. … I think it’s something that people have certain freedoms and individual liberties to make decisions for themselves."
DeSantis issued an executive order on the issue in April, and the Legislature subsequently passed a bill putting the ban in state law.
Democrats countered that the measure would delay Florida’s ability to return to normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I don't know many people who are going to get on a cruise if they don't have the security of knowing that the other people on that cruise with them, in that close environment with them, have also been vaccinated," Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, said.
"If you care about our business community as certain elected officials in this state say that they do," Hardy continued, "if you care about keeping Florida open, and making sure that we're not losing jobs due to the pandemic, why would you prevent people from enacting policies that give their customers the assurance, the confidence that they can walk into a business, and that they'll be safe?"
COVID-19 infections in Florida have skyrocketed over the summer as the state has been one of the hardest-hit areas of the U.S. from the delta variant. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported more than 15,000 patients are currently hospitalized in Florida, up from about 1,800 in June.
The News Service of Florida and the Associated Press contributed to this report.