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DeSantis Bans Vaccine Passports and Other COVID Restrictions

Effective July 1, Florida bars, businesses, schools and government entities will not be allowed to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination, according to a new law that was signed by the governor on Monday.

(TNS) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kept his promise and signed a bill into law Monday that bars businesses, schools and government entities across Florida from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.

The bill is effective July 1, but DeSantis also on Monday said he would sign an executive order invalidating all remaining local emergency COVID orders that are still in place after July 1 and suspend immediately any orders related to COVID-19 now.

"I think it's the evidence-based thing to do," DeSantis said at St. Petersburg restaurant where he signed the bill with House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson at this side. "I think folks that are saying that they need to be policing people at this point, if you're saying that you really are saying you don't believe in the vaccines, you don't believe in the data you don't believe in the science."

The provision regulating so-called "vaccine passports" is tucked into, SB 2006, a bill intended to update the state's emergency powers in the face of a future public health emergency. 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 and gives the governor to invalidate an emergency order. Currently, such orders can be extended indefinitely.

The measure comes just days after the CDC told the cruise ship industry it can speed up the timeline for cruises to restart — but only if ships can show most passengers and crew are vaccinated against COVID-19.

"The legislation creates a default legal presumption that during any emergency our businesses should be free from government mandates to close, and our schools should remain open for in-person instruction for our children," DeSantis said, commending his decision to open the state despite warnings from federal healthcare officials. "We wanted people to be happy living in Florida. It was the road less traveled at the time."

Critics said the ban on vaccine documentation was written to appeal to vaccine opponents and would hamper efforts by the cruise industry and others that have struggled to bring tourists back to Florida.

DeSantis on April 2 issued an executive order blocking COVID-19 passports, which he said would create "huge" privacy issues that could result in people handing over medical information to a "big corporation." The law now makes the executive order permanent.

The governor appeared on Fox News' Laura Ingraham show on Thursday, shortly after legislators passed the measure an proclaimed 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," DeSantis told the Fox News audience. "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.

Florida already requires other types of vaccines for students to attend public schools, but the restriction for COVID-19 vaccines applies to schools as well as private businesses. Violators can be fined up to $5,000.

Simpson, a Trilby Republican, said he supported the governor's action in the face of the continuing pandemic.

"Make no mistake about it, families are still dealing with COVID where you have family members still dying of COVID, but you have to ultimately weigh the balance of people's lives and their mental health and, and the amount of suicides and all of the things that go wrong by locking our citizens down," Simpson said.

Trying to Strike 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 strike "a delicate balance between protecting people and protecting people's civil liberties."

"What this legislation does is it makes sure that the state of Florida is planning and preparing for the next public health emergency," he said at the bill signing. "It funds, the emergency response. It protects individual liberties. It limits government actors, and it provides transparency and accountability for those who would take your liberties."

Leek defended the restriction on vaccine authorizations during the House debate, 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 legislators critical of the measure noted that lawmakers did nothing this session to close the vaccine hesitancy gap, encourage people to get vaccinated, or educate people about vaccines.

As of May 3, Florida has only 30% of the population was fully vaccinated, and Florida ranked 38th in vaccine rates in the nation.

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.

"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," warned Rep. Omari Hardy, a West Palm Beach Democrat, during House debate last week.

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.

(c)2021 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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