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Capitol Buzz | Florida's special session ends:The vaccine mandate session is over. Or is it?

18 Nov 2021

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

That's it. Late Wednesday night, a day ahead of schedule, Florida's Legislature wrapped up its special legislative session on vaccine mandates.

It was a smooth — and strange — special legislative session. Four bills were heard in just a few committees in only three days, and not a single word was amended along the way (a rarity).

Democrats said that was evidence the cake was baked last week, when the bills were announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Although DeSantis has been railing against vaccine mandates, the main bill that passed last night makes them legal, but employers would have to provide five opt-out provisions for employees who don't want to be vaccinated, such as allowing them to wear a mask or claim a religious exemption.

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, called it "not only a historic piece of legislation, but one that we'll be talking about for hundreds of years to come."

That might be a bit of hyperbole — the bill is set to expire in 18 months.

In reality, no one really knows the effect of these bills, at least not yet. Here's why:

The courts will ultimately decide: The law on vaccine mandates was done in response to a Biden Administration rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to have their employees be vaccinated. That rule would presumably override the bill lawmakers just passed. But that rule was challenged by Republicans and placed on hold by a federal court, which won't decide the issue until next year. (Companies with fewer than 100 employees will be affected by the law Florida just passed.)

Key details won't be known for weeks: The opt-outs for Floridians who don't want to be vaccinated are vague. Employees can skip the vaccine if they are regularly tested, but the bill doesn’t say how often. Employees "anticipating pregnancy" don’t need to take the vaccine, but the bill doesn’t define that term. Employees who have immunity from COVID also can skip the vaccine, but the bill doesn’t say how immunity is determined. Those exceptions, and others, are going to be defined by the Florida Department of Health, led by DeSantis' controversial state surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo. What he decides could reshape how this bill plays out.

One bill is unlikely to become reality: The Legislature also passed a bill that creates the first step for Florida to leave a federal program that oversees workplace safety and replace it with a new workplace safety program run by the state. That "first step," however, is telling the governor's office to create a plan — for a plan — to leave federal oversight behind. Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, acknowledged that would take between two to five years, and privately, senators from both parties don't believe it will ever happen. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, called creating another state agency a violation of Republican small-government principles.

Other parts are redundant or will likely have no effect: The Legislature also included a provision that extends unemployment benefits to Floridians who are fired from their jobs because they refuse to be vaccinated. But the state's unemployment agency, which reports to DeSantis, already said those people are not being denied benefits. One of the four bills also strips the surgeon general of the ability to order someone to be vaccinated for "communicable diseases that have significant morbidity or mortality and present a severe danger to public health." That's a provision the surgeon general has never used, and lawmakers didn't strip his other powers: the ability to also order someone to be examined, tested, treated, isolated, or quarantined.

Other headlines you may have missed

The base is fired up. Republican-backed bills on vaccine mandates sailed through the Legislature this week. Why isn’t the base totally happy?

Power to Florida’s top doc. Ladapo will have broad authority to dictate rules around workplace coronavirus rules. Here’s why that’s worth noting.

[Redacted]. Want to find out which companies are under investigation for violating Florida’s restrictions on vaccine mandates in the workplace? Too bad.

Not just the session. Redistricting hearings happened this week, too. Here’s what you need to know.

“Patria y vida”. This week, DeSantis asked the Legislature for $25 million to repair Miami’s Freedom Tower. That’s a hugely important symbol to lots of people.

“Anti-riot” bill. These cities are suing the state. But it’s not because of COVID-19.

The fight over masks. The mask fight between the federal and state government. Is it over? Yes? No? Sort of?

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