At-home COVID testing. Credit: Diane Rado
Florida GOP lawmakers are looking to restrict face mask coverings, proof of COVID-19 vaccinations and COVID-19 tests at private businesses, governmental agencies and public and private schools, based on “discrimination” — though Democrats have argued that the safety of others need to be in consideration as well.
The bill, HB 1013, states that “it is the intent of the Legislature that Floridians be free from facial covering and COVID-19 vaccination mandates of any kind and discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination or post infection recovery status or refusal to take a COVID-19 test.”
The bill comes at a time when Florida law is set to expire on June 1, on mask and vaccine mandates. In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis indicated he would push to permanently ban mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccination requirements at schools and businesses, the Phoenix previously reported.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, preventative measures such as wearing face masks and issuing vaccine mandates have been an ongoing and drawn-out political debate. Republican lawmakers have largely argued that individuals should have the right to make their own health care decisions without government intervention, while Democrats have argued in favor of local governments and businesses to make decisions about face masks and vaccines.
The bill sponsor, Rep. Philip Wayne Griffitts, said at a Health and Human Services committee Monday that people have been “discriminated” against due to their medical decisions for choosing not to pursue recommended COVID prevention methods such as vaccination or face masks.
“I don’t believe were talking about science in this bill — were talking about discriminatory practices,” he told the House committee. Griffitts is a Republican who represents Bay County in the Florida Panhandle.
“The science over this has changed dramatically over the last two years. I think we have people that were pro-vaccination and now are non-vaccine people,” Griffitts claims. “We’ve known that things have changed dramatically over the last two years and we have to take that into account. All this is doing is taking the discriminatory practices off of what we’ve learned over the last two years.”
HB 1013 was approved by the House Health and Human Services committee Monday, with Democrats in opposition of the measure, arguing that the bill is governmental overreach on how private employers conduct business regarding their customers and employees.
Rep. Ashley Gantt, a Democrat who represents part of Miami-Dade County, referenced a rapidly progressing 6-week abortion ban in comparison to imposing a mask mandate.
“The same body has a bill that is trying to tell a woman what to do with her body — but we say it’s discriminatory with asking a person to wear a mask. I also fear that businesses will not be able to be private businesses, and run their business how they want because, we might be — for whatever reason — we do not like face masks. But COVID is still very real. People are still getting COVID.
“I cannot understand the rationale for making businesses adhere to something when it’s a private, privately-owned business,” she said.
House Health Committee Chair Randy Fine of Brevard County stated that the legislation does not infringe on an individual’s right to wear masks or get vaccinated for COVID.
In November 2021, well in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and shortly after vaccinations for COVID were approved, the Florida Legislature convened for a special session in order to prohibit strict vaccine mandates for Florida businesses and employers by providing expansive exemptions.
The special session also prohibited school districts from imposing mask mandates on students, even though the Florida Constitution gives school boards authority to operate schools, and several districts opted for strict mask mandates when COVID cases spiked earlier in the 2021-22 school year.
Right to choose
The bill also creates a “patient’s right to choose COVID-19 treatment alternatives,” and states that “a hospital may not interfere with a patient’s right to choose COVID-19 treatment alternatives as recommended by a health care practitioner with privileges at the hospital.”
According to a legislative staff analysis:
“The practitioner must explain the ‘alternative medications’ to treat COVID-19 the benefits and risks, sufficiently to allow the patient to make a ‘prudent’ decision, taking into account the patient’s physical state and ability to understand the information.”
HB 1013 says that a health care practitioner shall consider “any medications currently authorized or approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of COVID-19 and use his or her best clinical judgment to identify any alternative medications that could reasonably be expected to benefit the patient.”
Regarding the prohibition on mask requirements, there is a slight exception for health care settings, which says that state health agencies will develop rules regarding facial coverings in these areas.
Those agencies are the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Florida Department of Health, the latter of which answers to the Florida Surgeon General, Joe Ladapo.
Florida’s top health official has faced multiple backlashes regarding his statements on COVID-19.
Most recently, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Ladapo recommended in October that young men should not get the COVID-19 vaccine due to cardiac-related deaths, even though the state agency had data that contradicted his suggestion.
According to Tampa Bay Times, the DOH had data which indicated a COVID infection could increase the chances of a cardiac-related death much more than getting the vaccine, despite Ladapo’s recommendation.
Rep. Lindsay Cross, a Democrat who represents part of Pinellas County, says that the bill goes “way too far.”
“I think we’ve gotten to a point where we use science only when it serves our own best interest and the point that we wish to make,” Cross said in opposition of the bill.
“There was an article that came out last week that shows that our surgeon general removed some information related to COVID-19 vaccines from, you know, official records. I’m a trained scientist and… my schooling told me that you keep data in there even, if it doesn’t meet your original hypothesis,” Cross said. The Florida House of Representative website says that she is an environmental scientist.
In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis indicated he would push to permanently ban mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccination requirements at schools and businesses, the Phoenix previously reported.
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