TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday opened up another front in his ongoing battle against Covid-19 related mandates, threatening to fine cities and counties thousands of dollars if they impose vaccine requirements on their employees.
The latest move from the governor comes after his weekslong fight with Florida schools over student mask mandates and after President Joe Biden last week said he will impose vaccine mandates on federal employees and health care providers that rely on federal funding, as well as employers with 100 or more workers.
“We cannot allow these people being cast aside and their jobs being destroyed,” said DeSantis during a press conference in the small Florida town of Newberry. The governor was joined by city of Gainesville and Orange County employees opposed to vaccine mandates as well as other Republican officials who sharply criticized the federal government. “This is not something that should be coerced on people.”
DeSantis’ warning to municipalities and counties against imposing vaccine mandates is his latest attempt to resist Covid-related restrictions, lockdowns or other measures amid the recent surge in new infections. While new infections appear to be cresting in Florida — during the summer, Florida made up one in five new Covid cases in America — the state still had over 100,000 new infections last week. The state has also reported an additional 8,000 deaths in the past month.
DeSantis’ announcement Monday also signals a shift seemingly against vaccines, which have been pushed by the Biden administration but has met resistance across the nation by some who fear the vaccine or object to the federal government imposing requirements, among other reasons.
So far, at least three Florida counties and cities — including Orange, a large urban county in the central part of the state — have required their workers to be vaccinated or tested. Several local officials contacted on Monday said they would resist the governor’s attempt to stop vaccine mandates.
DeSantis’ Monday press conference functioned more as a campaign rally, with the audience cheering on the Republican governor as he lashed out at Biden for his “arrogance” and being “dismissive” of those who do not share his position on vaccine mandates. DeSantis, like he did last week, contended that Biden lacked the legal authority to require mandates, especially on large employers, and sounded as if he is ready to challenge the president’s authority.
“I think the fight with the Biden mandate is a real serious fight to defend the constitutional system,” DeSantis said. “And you know he is so dismissive of anybody who disagrees him. You know how he talks about governors as if they just should be tossed aside out of the way.”
The scene was a sharp turnaround from earlier in the year where the governor was aggressively touting Covid-19 vaccines and pushing to get many of the state’s elderly inoculated against the deadly disease that has gone on to claim the lives of more than 48,000 Floridians.
Instead DeSantis was standing side-by-side by people opposed to the vaccine, including one Gainesville worker who said that the vaccine alters genes. Another woman kept saying “my body, my choice” — echoing an oft-heard refrain of those who support abortion rights.
But any attempt to ban vaccine mandates will not be easy. Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings defended requiring a mandate, saying the governor’s actions were aimed at pleasing political supporters and that local government was caught in “the middle” between Biden and GOP governors opposed to him. He said his county was prepared to challenge any state actions in court.
“I’m not going to take actions that would adversely impact the safety of our community,” said Demings, who is married to Rep. Val Demings, the Orlando Democrat challenging GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. “Sometimes quite frankly, I question whether or not the governor really sees it that way. He may say that he does but I believe many of the decisions that he makes are purely politically motivated.”
Shelby Taylor, a spokesperson for the city of Gainesville, said in an email that “the health, safety and welfare of our city’s workforce and those we serve is our number one priority. The city has taken the steps necessary to achieve that priority and stand by that decision. It is our belief that as an employer, we retain the right and responsibility to require vaccinations as a condition of employment.”
Florida has the highest vaccination rate of all Southern states other than Virginia. But amid this summer’s significant surge caused by the Delta variant, local governments put in both incentive programs and mandates that require their employees to get Covid-19 shots.
Some Florida counties have required the vaccine or frequent testing, while others are planning to impose disciplinary actions — including possible termination — on remaining holdouts. Orange County, for example, has a Sept. 30 deadline for employees to attest that they are vaccinated.
Florida legislators this past spring passed a new law that bars businesses and local governments from requiring proof of vaccination, a measure that sparked a lawsuit by one major cruise line against the DeSantis administration. Businesses as well as cities and counties are subject to $5,000 fines for each violation.
Nothing in that new law, however, blocks private employers from mandating vaccines for their workers. But a spokesperson for DeSantis maintained that the vaccine passport requirement also blocks local governments from requiring it of their own workers. The spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, however, did not immediately answer whether or not the governor’s anti-mandate position extends to large employers such as Disney, which has already put one in place for its theme park workers. Back in May, DeSantis said it was up to businesses to “make those decisions.”
It’s also not clear how quickly the state will put in new rules that would call for fines against cities and counties.
State Attorney General Ashley Moody, who just filed for reelection, said on Monday that she is backing an ongoing lawsuit filed by Gainesville employees challenging the mandate.
“This is about very simply, ‘How much power do our government officials have when we have never given them that power to do something like this?’” Moody said to loud applause. “….It is unlawful. It is directly contradicting Florida law.”