Democrats in the Florida House held press conference in opposition to special session, while protesters spoke out. Credit: Issac Morgan
Inside the state Capitol, a special legislative session in Florida began with a clash between protesters waving signs against vaccine and mask mandates as House Democrats denounced the session, saying it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and the focus should be on other issues.
As Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate held press conferences and media availabilities to express their opposition to the session, two women held signs on the 4th floor of the Capitol rotunda, with one that read “Vaccine Choice, Medical Freedom.”
State Rep. Kevin Chambliss, a Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade County, told the Florida Phoenix in a conversation that the session should be focused on addressing problems with the unemployment system.
“We would love to have a special session on that. I still have a backlog of constituents who have not gotten their unemployment check in months,” he said.
“If I didn’t get my check in months, me and my family would be worried about where we are going to be sleeping for the next month…we don’t think this topic warrants a special session but we are here to do our job on behalf of the people of Florida.”
Chambliss said that Democrats plan to propose amendments on the various bills related to vaccine mandates in the workplace and public schools. The session also covers mask mandates and parent rights in connection with who is in control of Florida’s public schools — local schools boards, the executive branch, including the Education Commissioner, and parents.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed for parents to be the arbiters of who can wear masks at schools, and the governor has opposed both vaccine and mask mandates at schools and workplaces.
The Florida Constitution authorizes local boards to operate their public schools, but the issue has become problematic at the very least as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Outside of the Capitol grounds, groups were gathering, though it wasn’t clear yet which sides people were on. Were they part of the anti-vaccination crowd, or the groups who support vaccine mandates, such as the Biden administration’s effort to vaccinate thousands of workers starting in early January. However, court rulings have essentially frozen the effort for right now. It’s not widely mentioned in the Legislature, but the Biden plan includes allowing workers to undergo a COVID-19 test in lieu of getting a shot.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade County Democrat, said four bills proposed by Republican leaders are poorly written and achieve only one goal: to further DeSantis’ political ambitions.
“This is yet another series of bills that are quickly drafted, without a lot of deliberation, it looks like — or practical application — of the consequences to accommodate assertions or platitudes or statements made by the governor,” Pizzo told reporters alongside other Senate Democrats.
Sen. Janet Cruz, a Hillsborough Democrat, said a bill to create a new agency in Florida to regulate workplace safety – rather than be subject to regulation by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration — is a waste of money and will not improve workplace safety or protect workers.
“What are we really saying? We’re saying that if you don’t like the rules, then let’s just go create our own agency … at our Florida taxpayers’ expense. I think that’s just ridiculous,” Cruz said.
Health organizations chimed in as well.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association, and The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society said in a written statement:
“Millions of Floridians with chronic illnesses and their families are concerned about the action being sought by the Legislature in the upcoming special session. Vaccine requirements help protect immunosuppressed patients, including kids, and blocking business and organizations as well as cities and towns from enacting these policies jeopardizes the health of patients and their families and silences their voices.
“As public health organizations dedicated to improving the lives of the patients we serve, the health and safety of the patients we serve is our top priority. We oppose efforts like these that undermine evidence-based, public health policies and endanger those with chronic illnesses.”
Sen. Tina Polsky, a Palm Beach County Democrat, said, “What message are we sending about actually ending this pandemic, if we are not promoting vaccines, suggesting vaccines, encouraging vaccines? Here we are, giving license to people for many, many reasons to be able to opt out of getting a vaccine, and I think’s it’s the exact opposite approach we should be taking.”
Florida Phoenix reporter Laura Cassels contributed to this report.
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