Gov. Ron DeSantis presented the GOP agenda for a special session of the Florida Legislature on Nov. 8, 2021. Source: Screenshot/DeSantis Facebook page
Parents could sue school districts for monetary damages if administrators require children to get vaccinated or wear a face mask against the coronavirus under legislation filed Monday for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ special session of the Florida Legislature.
The legislative proposal would expand parents’ rights, part of a new law signed by the governor earlier this year that has opened the door for more parent power in school settings, though local boards have authority to operate public schools.
“I guarantee you, with having that type of teeth in the Parents’ Bill of Rights, you’re going to have everyone get in line,” the governor said Monday during a joint news conference in Zephyrhills.
A short time later came an email announcing that DeSantis has opened his reelection campaign — one year to the day before the Nov. 8, 2022, general election. The notice cited the governor’s efforts to resist mask mandates and keep the economy open during the COVID pandemic.
“I also protected individual Floridians and small businesses by keeping Florida open and stood up for students and parents by ensuring schools provided in-person instruction and by championing the rights of parents,” DeSantis said in the email.
The governor didn’t mention that in the early days of the pandemic, starting around spring break of 2020, many students found themselves working at home and online on the governor’s order. Schools were essentially closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. The next year, many students also continued online learning.
However, DeSantis has since expressed regret that kids were not in traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
The special session is to open next Monday and if necessary run through that Friday to take up the GOP’s “Keep Florida Free” agenda. House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson accompanied DeSantis during the news conference.
HB 1 and its companion SB2 would prohibit worker vaccine mandates unless they allow exemptions for doctor-endorsed medical reasons including pregnancy and “sincerely held” religious reasons, plus immunity based on having recovered from COVID.
Additionally, workers could agree to undergo coronavirus testing or wear personal protective equipment such as face masks. Also, workers fired under similar mandates could file complaints with the state attorney general’s office that could bring fines as high as $50,000 under the legislation.
The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and due to take effect on Jan. 4, would include frequent testing as an alternative. The plan is on hold for now following a ruling Saturday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The court has not ruled on the merits yet.
DeSantis and his fellow Republicans argue such mandates are unnecessary, violate workers’ right to health autonomy, and would choke the economy by excluding essential workers.
The Florida bills also would prohibit vaccine mandates for government and school employees; give parents the last word on vaccines for their kids; and provide those fines for private-sector employees fired for refusing vaccines or denied recognition of valid exemptions. Fines for public-sector employees would run as high as $5,000.
Vaccine refusers who do find themselves out of work would be eligible for unemployment compensation.
The governors’ vaccine policy has been highly contentious, with a number of school districts defiantly enforcing mandates in the interest of public health.
During the news conference, DeSantis described the existing enforcement mechanism, with the Department of Education withholding state money equal to the salaries of school board members, as “all this kabuki that’s been going on.” The Biden administration sent money to some of these districts to compensate them for the lost money. Then, the state withheld additional funds from those districts.
“Parents will have the right to go in and sue the school districts and recover costs and attorney fees for having to do it,” the governor said.
Other bills on the agenda:
- HB 3 and SB 4 would block release under public records law of workers’ private medical or religious information at issue in any investigations into illegal workplace denials of vaccine exceptions.
- HB 6 and SB 6 would begin the process of establishing a separate state workplace-safety bureaucracy as an alternative to OSHA.
- HB 7 and SB 8 would eliminate authority of state health officials to mandate that people submit to vaccinations. According to a Sprowls-Simpson joint statement, this authority has never been invoked.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper ruled in September that school boards were within their authority to impose tougher mask rules, citing language in the Parents’ Bill of Rights that limits the right to decide about vaccines if narrowly tailored and “reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”
However, a state appellate court put that ruling on hold pending further proceedings.
On Friday, an administrative law judge rejected a challenge filed by school boards against a Department of Health rule allowing children exposed to the coronavirus to remain in class if they show no symptoms.
Sprowls spoke defiantly about the Biden administration’s mandates, which would apply to private businesses with more than 100 employees, federal contractors, and health care providers receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding.
“If the Department of Labor and OSHA are going to be weaponized as a way to hold hostage businesses throughout the state of Florida, no problem; we want a different plan; we want out of OSHA. We’ll submit our own regulatory authority and say goodbye to the federal government,” he said.
In practice, creating a new state bureaucracy likely would take a long time and prove expensive. The pending legislation authorizes the governor to begin planning for the new agency and provide a progress report by Jan. 17.
In any event, the federal government would have to approve any state regulations. The 22 states that have done so typically go beyond OSHA regulations to protect state and local employees and sometimes private-sector workers.
DeSantis said he assumes the agenda will advance solely with Republican support.
“My sense is, no Democrat will help any of these workers,” he said. “They’re all going to support forced firing of these people over these jabs. That’s unfortunate; hopefully, I’m wrong.”
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book issued a written statement accusing the Republicans of preventing employers from protecting their workers’ health.
“‘Floridians deserve freedom — but only if you think like we do.’ That’s the message broadcast by Florida’s GOP leaders this morning as they propose legislation to strip business owners and local governments of the freedom to decide what’s best for their workers and their communities,” Book said.
“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,” she added.
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