Gov. DeSantis’ office doubles down on vaccine passport penalties, Leon County stands by vaccine requirements

Florida

FILE – In this Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, file photo, a patient receives an influenza vaccine in Mesquite, Texas. Amid all the focus on COVID-19 vaccinations, U.S. health experts have another plea: Don’t skip your flu shot. With U.S. schools and businesses reopened, international travel resuming and far less masking this fall, flu is likely to make a comeback. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — In a notice dated Oct. 6, the Florida Department of Health informed the Leon County Government that the county would face a $3.57 million fine as a result of its vaccine requirements for current and former county employees.

The notice by DOH said the fines were coming as a result of violations of the state’s recently passed vaccine passport ban, SB 2006, and that the total fine of $3,570,000 was being leveled for 714 counts of violating Florida Statute 768.38.

The counts correspond to individual employees and former employees, with $5,000 in fines per individual required to be vaccinated by Leon County.

“Governor DeSantis has been very clear, in numerous public statements, that any entity requiring vaccine passports in violation of the statute will be fined $5,000 per violation,” said a spokesperson for the governor. “Leon County officials were well-aware of how much the fines would cost, but they decided to break the law anyway.”

In response to the initial letter from the health department published on Oct. 12, Leon County Administrator Vincent S. Long issued a statement, saying the county stood by its decision and position on vaccine requirements.

The statement said in part that the requirement was both legally justified and needed to keep the public and the county’s employees safe. 

Long’s statement also pledged to enforce the county’s rights through any legal remedies available, including how the state statute at issue is applied, “so that we can continue to direct our full and undivided attention on combating the virus, protecting our employees and citizens, and fulfilling our obligations to our community.”

Responding to questions from WFLA News Channel 8 about how the $3.57 million fine could potentially affect the county’s budget, the governor’s office doubled down on the penalties and the state’s rejection of vaccine requirements.

A list of organizations and businesses that may be under investigation included the Leon County Government, among other entities, making the governor’s response to potential budget issues a preview of what their stance could be for other violators going forward. 

It’s important to note that entries in the list are submitted to the DOH as user-generated content, and entities on the list are “under review,” not under investigation yet.

The governor’s office sent 8 On Your Side the following response to new questions on the list’s contents and how the entities were included:

The list of entities “under review” by the Florida Department of Health includes all the entities that have been the subject of user-generated reports. Any Floridian or visitor can submit a report about any entity, which would appear on the list. However, the existence of a user-generated complaint is not evidence that the entity has actually violated state law. We are not aware of any state agencies that are requiring vaccine passports or mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for employees. COVID-19 vaccine passport requirements at any government agency, state or local, are prohibited under Florida law.

Statement from the Executive Office of the Governor

While Leon County’s budget may not be largely affected by the fine, which would amount to roughly 1.21 percent of its $294,199,442 adopted budget for the current fiscal year, the response by the governor’s office did not give ground on the potential ramifications of the penalties on the municipality’s funds.

“If Leon County cannot afford to pay the fine of $3.57 million, county officials should have followed the law. Leon County should have respected its employees’ rights to make their own decisions about their health,” said a spokesperson for the governor. “It is unethical to fire workers, who have served loyally and competently throughout the pandemic, because of those workers’ personal medical decisions.”

After receiving the response from the governor’s office, 8 On Your Side reached out to Leon County with questions on how the fines could affect their municipal budget. 

Instead, a Leon County spokesperson directed News Channel 8 back to the county’s previous statement from Oct. 12 “due to possible legal action.” A link to a copy of the Leon County budget was included in the county’s response.

Continuing the governor’s salvo against vaccine mandates, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said that requirements like the one in Leon County were “not justified from either a moral perspective or a public health perspective.”

The governor’s office also referenced different reactions by individuals to vaccines and how “certain conditions might mean vaccination is ineffective or even risky for some people,” as well as the risk for potential adverse reactions.

Going further, the governor’s office said deciding to get a vaccine should be a conversation between a patient and their doctor or another health care professional, and that those citing religious beliefs for objecting to the shot should have their faith “respected like anyone else’s.”

The governor’s office also said vaccine efficacy could decrease over time, referencing the need for booster shots being recommended by President Joe Biden’s administration. A spokesperson for the governor questioned when an individual who was fully vaccinated might be considered “‘unvaccinated’ again” due to not getting the booster.

As of Oct. 15, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had endorsed booster shots for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, just a day after taking similar action with a lower-dose version of Moderna’s COVID shot.

The FDA had previously supported both Pfizer and Moderna’s boosters for those with weakened immune systems, and Pfizer’s booster specifically for seniors. President Biden had also strongly advocated for more widespread vaccinations earlier in the week, as the FDA endorsed the Moderna booster.

The FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly stated that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for combating the coronavirus and fighting the pandemic.

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