Businesses, schools and government entities across Florida will be barred from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination under a bill given final approval Thursday and sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.
The rare restriction on business from the pro-business Legislature was tucked into SB 2006, a bill intended to update the state’s emergency powers in the face of a future public health emergency. It immediately drew criticism that it was written to appeal to the minority of voters on the conservative right who oppose vaccines.
““The irony is that this bill would grant rights to the people who have not been vaccinated, but it doesn’t protect me,’’ said Rep. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat. “And it’s time to start thinking about policy and start thinking about science and less about politics.”
DeSantis won attention on conservative news channels on April 2 when he issued the executive order blocking COVID-19 passports, warning that it would create privacy issues. He appeared again on Fox News on Thursday night, after the Senate gave the bill final passage, boasting that he was “the first, I think, elected official in the country, certainly state governor, to say we’re not having vaccine passports.”
“You have a right to participate in society without them asking you to divulge this type of health information like just to go to a movie, just to go to a ball game,’’ he said. “Our Legislature has passed what I asked for, and I’ll be signing that very soon.”
Fox host Laura Ingraham asked what will happen if airports or airlines starting requiring vaccine certificates.
“Well, they’re not going to be able to do it in the state of Florida,’’ DeSantis responded, as the crowd at the outdoor town hall in Orlando cheered.
Although Florida already requires other types of vaccines for students to attend public schools. the governor’s order was adopted by legislators and added to their emergency powers bill to apply to schools as well as private businesses. Violators can be fined up to $5,000.
In addition to barring so-called COVID-19 “passports,” the measure would make it more difficult for local governments to respond to public emergencies by requiring their emergency orders to be narrowly tailored and extended only in seven-day increments for a total of 42 days. Currently, such orders can be extended indefinitely.
Florida legislators have remained on the sidelines as local governments and federal and state agencies navigated the policy and logistics response to the pandemic. The bill approved by the House 78-36 and the Senate 23-15 on Thursday, does not address the coronavirus pandemic but updates the law for future emergencies.
‘Striking a balance’
Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, who led the Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee that drafted the bill, said the goal of the measure was to “prepare Florida for the next public-health emergency while striking a delicate balance between protecting people and protecting people’s civil liberties.”
Leek defended the restriction on vaccine authorizations, saying that the COVID-19 vaccines “don’t have the same proven history of the same vaccines we require our school children to get. We must recognize that vaccine hesitancy is real and understandable.”
He said that while he urges everyone to “please get vaccinated,’’ there remains resistance among the minority community, and the bill tells businesses “they may not enact policies that unfairly and disparately discriminate against our minority populations.”
But Grieco noted that he has “read every bill that’s been filed, every bill that hits this House floor, and I don’t think one of them has addressed encouraging people to get vaccinated, nor has it addressed, educating people about vaccines.”
Florida has only 28% of the population fully vaccinated, and lawmakers have not focused attention or resources to reducing the racial, income and geographical disparities in vaccination rates.
The global pandemic exposed how unprepared Florida was for a public health emergency. Although appropriations are the constitutional prerogative of the Legislature, the governor controlled most of the emergency funding during the pandemic with no legislative authority or oversight.
The bill attempts to address that by imposing additional oversight while also giving the governor additional authority and also allowing him to override local orders if they are determined to “unnecessarily restrict individual rights or liberties.”
But opponents warned the provision also opens the door to potential legal challenges because it delegates to the governor power that should reside in the Legislature.
Opponents also warned the bill could lead to First Amendment challenges because it strips private businesses and educational institutions of their ability to control their right to associate with unvaccinated people, which under law are not a protected class.
Rep. Omari Hardy, a West Palm Beach Democrat, warned that the prohibition on vaccine passports will backfire because businesses, especially those that rely on tourists, won’t be allowed to assure their customers that people are virus-free.
“This is the ‘Keep Florida Closed’ bill,” he said. “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, and in that close environment with them, have also been vaccinated.”
But Rep. Mike Beltran, a Lithia Republican, dismissed those criticisms.
“If you took the vaccine, then why are you worried about what other people are doing?’’ he asked. “What kind of business do you want to go into where you have to show an internal passport in order to get into that business?”
Grieco called the bill “irresponsible political theater — another solution looking for a problem that will discourage Floridians from getting vaccinated, in a very dangerous time in our country.’’
He said he doesn’t believe “that the government should be able to mandate vaccinations, but there’s a big difference between mandating vaccinations and encouraging people to help us get through the worst pandemic we have seen in our lifetime.”
Hardy blamed the hands-off approach of DeSantis for not doing more to prevent the 35,000 COVID-19 deaths in Florida and chided legislators for not doing more.
“I have never seen an elected official, invested with emergency powers, use those emergency powers to make the emergency worse. That’s what we have seen with this governor,’’ Hardy said. “And so rather than coming up with a bill that hamstrings local governments, we should have come up with a bill to hold people accountable who didn’t use the power that they should have used to keep people from dying.”
Among other aspects of the bill, state agencies would be required to develop by the end of 2022 public health emergency plans and the Division of Emergency Management would have to stockpile personal protective equipment.
This story was updated after it was originally published to reflect the Senate’s final passage and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ comments.