Florida Republicans push vaccine exemptions, school mask lawsuits

The Florida House and Senate on Monday rolled out proposals for a special legislative session next week that will focus on opposing COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates.

A series of bills were released as Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated what he sees as the need for the session, which will start Nov. 15. DeSantis appeared with House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, at Bahrs Aluminum and Construction in Zephyrhills.

"We have got to stop trying to browbeat people," DeSantis said. "From the very beginning, we’ve said, let’s not put people down, let’s lift people up. That’s what we are going to be doing, and we are going to be saving a lot of jobs in the state of Florida."

The proposals, according to summaries issued by the House and Senate, include ensuring workers can receive exemptions from employer-required vaccinations; preventing government employers from requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19; reinforcing the state’s so-called "Parents Bill of Rights" law to shield schoolchildren from mask and vaccination mandates; moving toward withdrawing from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight; and prohibiting the state surgeon general from forcing people to be vaccinated.

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DeSantis, who is widely mentioned as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, called the special session to push back against the Biden administration on federal vaccination requirements.

The state has filed lawsuits challenging vaccination requirements for federal contractors and businesses with 100 or more employees. The Biden administration wants those requirements to take effect Jan. 4, with OSHA issuing rules last week on the vaccination requirements for large businesses. DeSantis has also said the state will challenge a Biden administration move to require vaccination of workers at health-care facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes, that take part in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The summaries of the bills Monday didn’t include removing COVID-19 liability protections for businesses that fire employees based on vaccination requirements, an idea that was part of DeSantis’ initial call for the session last month. In Texas, proposals intended to block businesses from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations failed after business groups objected.

DeSantis, preferring to use the word "jab" rather than vaccination, noted there "a lot of differences of opinion" within the Republican legislative caucuses about bills for the special session. But he said "we're going to do something in this special session that is going to put people's minds at ease, it's going to save their jobs."

RELATED: Florida to sue Biden administration over COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Democrats have argued DeSantis’ call is designed to further his White House ambitions and that he should focus on other issues.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, released a statement that said the proposals "strip business owners and local governments of the freedom to decide what's best for their workers and their communities."

"This proposed legislation not only inhibits that very freedom, but also dangerously threatens the safety of workers and communities by handicapping hospitals and health-care facilities who are reliant on federal funding to keep our communities safe as well as stripping protections from workers with the abandonment of OSHA," Book said.

DeSantis said "my sense is no Democrat will help any of these workers" and that "they're all going to support forced firing of these people over these jabs."

RELATED: Florida school districts appealing judge's decision on mask-mandate ban

The lengthy process to move away from OSHA, a desire of Sprowls and Simpson, could separate the state from federal regulations placed on employers and workers.

"If OSHA, the Department of Labor and OSHA, is going to be weaponized as a way to hold hostage businesses throughout the state of Florida, no problem. We want a different plan," Sprowls said. "We want out of OSHA. We'll submit our own regulatory authority and say goodbye to the federal government."

The OSHA proposal, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, is listed as "the first step" in a process that could take several years.

"After 40 years in the private sector running businesses that depend on an in-person workforce, where significant safety risks have to be mitigated, I am shocked to see such an unconstitutional mockery of the important role of OSHA," Simpson, who is running for state agriculture commissioner, said in a prepared statement.

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The primary proposal (HB 1B and SB 2B) for the special session would prohibit employers from requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 without also providing exemptions. Those exemptions would be for medical or religious reasons, prior infections, agreeing to submit to periodic testing or agreeing to wear personal-protective equipment.

The proposal also would seek to reinforce an already-existing law to prevent government employers from requiring workers to be vaccinated. It would also seek to bolster the Parents’ Bill of Rights by making "clear" parents have the sole discretion about whether children wear masks in school or are vaccinated, according to the summaries. The legislation also would prohibit quarantining of asymptomatic students and teachers.

Businesses that violate the changes and improperly terminate employees could face fines up to $50,000, according to the summaries. Violations of the rights of public employees could lead to fines of $5,000.

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"This will be probably the strongest protections for both private- and public-sector employees anywhere in the country," DeSantis said.

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, and Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, will sponsor SB 2B and HB 1B.

Other proposals would:

--- Create a public-records exemption for personal medical information or information regarding employees’ religious beliefs. The exemption would apply to files created during investigations of employers. The proposal (SB 4B and HB 3B) will be sponsored by Burgess, Grall and Massullo.

--- Establish a process (SB 6B and HB 5B) for the state to withdraw from OSHA and "assert" Florida’s jurisdiction regarding occupational safety and health issues.

--- Remove the authority of the state health officer, who is the surgeon general, from ordering vaccinations. The proposal (SB 8B and HB 7B) will be sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola.