Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is asking Leon County to pay $3.57 million because it imposed a Covid-19 vaccine mandate despite the state’s “vaccine passport” ban, potentially the first in a series of punishments Florida could levy as it goes after businesses and governments for allegedly violating its prohibition on proof of vaccination.
The Florida Department of Health announced Tuesday that acting “under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis,” the state had fined Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, after the local government asked for proof of Covid-19 vaccination from 714 employees.
Under Florida law, entities that ask for proof of Covid-19 vaccination—including businesses, local governments and educational institutions—are subject to a $5,000 fine per infraction.
DeSantis had previously criticized the local government’s vaccine requirement, which ultimately resulted in 14 employees being terminated, saying the county cannot “just cast aside people who’ve been serving faithfully” over a “personal choice” about their health.
Leon County officials have defended the mandate as a necessary public health measure, the Tallahassee Democrat reports, and its attorney has said the policy complies with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the county’s authority to mandate vaccinations.
In a letter to county administrator Vincent S. Long dated October 6 and published Tuesday by the Florida health department, the state agency said the county had 30 days to pay the fine.
“It is unacceptable that Leon County violated Florida law, infringed on current and former employees’ medical privacy, and fired loyal public servants because of their personal health decisions,” DeSantis said in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue fighting for Floridians’ rights and the Florida Department of Health will continue to enforce the law.”
In an interview with the Democrat Tuesday, Long said the county was “taking all of the legal steps necessary to defend” its public health measures and called DeSantis’ response to the local government’s mandate “unfortunate.” “We plan to assert our legal rights to support the actions we’ve taken, which we believe are not only completely legally justifiable but are the most responsible thing we could do in this case,” Long said.
What To Watch For
Leon County’s punishment could be the first of many, as the Florida Department of Health released a list Monday of more than 100 entities that are “under review” for potentially violating the state’s vaccine passport ban. The list—which includes everyone that’s been named in a complaint, including places that might not actually be violating the policy—includes major companies like Starbucks and AT&T; concerts in Florida by Harry Styles and Maroon 5; and “DoD employees,” suggesting the state could potentially take action against the federal government’s vaccine mandate for the U.S. military. In addition to Leon County, Orange County has also been warned it may face fines because of its vaccine mandate, though unvaccinated employees who violate that policy are only subject to a written reprimand and not termination. While the city of Gainesville was also initially on the list of entities under review, the health department noted Tuesday it is now complying with the state policy and will not be punished.
What We Don’t Know
Whether Florida’s vaccine passport ban will hold up in court. A federal district judge has already struck down the policy once by ruling Norwegian Cruise Line could ask for proof of vaccination, writing Florida’s policy “fails to provide a valid evidentiary, factual, or legal predicate” for why its ban on vaccine proof is necessary.
Leon County’s fine comes after DeSantis warned in September his administration intended to financially punish any local governments that impose vaccine mandates. The Florida law, which DeSantis signed in May, does not actually prohibit requiring vaccinations, but only stipulates places cannot require people to provide documentation of their shots. The law prohibits businesses from demanding vaccination proof from customers or guests—but not employees—and bars requiring vaccine documentation in order “to gain access to, entry upon, or service from” a local government or educational institution. DeSantis’ clash over the vaccine mandates isn’t the only fight the state has waged with local governments over Covid-19 measures, as Leon County and others have also defied the state’s ban on school mask mandates and been financially punished for doing so. The governor has broadly blocked local governments from imposing any enforceable Covid-19 restrictions like mask orders or business closures.
Leon County facing $3.57 million state fine for vaccine requirement (Tallahassee Democrat)