ORLANDO, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo spoke in Orlando at the Rio Pinar Golf & Country Club. Signage at the event read “Let Them Compete.” DeSantis announced that working with the Special Olympics International, all athletes would be able to compete regardless of vaccination status, in a reversal of previous expectations and rules.

The event follows the governor’s signing of the state budget on Thursday, and a memo reported by NBC News regarding a ban on transition care for Florida youths written by Ladapo to the Florida Board of Medicine on June 2. The governor and surgeon general were joined by Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Dr. Eric Hall.

The governor introduced several lawmakers also in attendance at the event, and noted that Dr. Hall was a representative for the Special Olympics, before beginning his speech. DeSantis also introduced several Special Olympics athletes.

“The 2022 USA Games, for Special Olympics International are scheduled to begin this weekend in Orlando. It’s something that we’ve worked with Special Olympics Florida and my administration over the last couple of years, looking forward to what we hope will be a really really good event,” DeSantis said, noting First Lady Casey DeSantis’ involvement. “We really feel strongly that having opportunities for these special Olympians is very important for our state. We want everybody in the state to be able to have opportunities to be able to make the most of their god given abilities, and then to be able to compete in athletics. Obviously that takes a variety of different forms, but when you have folks that have disabilities, to give them the opportunity to compete is really meaningful. And I can tell you the heart and determination you see from our special Olympians is remarkable. They’re able to do things, that quite frankly I would be able to do under those circumstances. So they really should be admired and commended.”

DeSantis said it was something meaningful for people throughout Florida.

“Now we also, over the last couple of years, as a state have taken some very strong stands namely with respect to some of these COVID policies. Our view has been that your rights and your freedoms should not be circumscribed by your willingness to take, or not take, a COVID vaccine,” DeSantis said. “So that took really a couple of different iterations in terms of actions that we took. One of the things we did early on was ban vaccine passports in Florida. So, you’re able to participate in society without having this mandate imposed upon you. And that was not the norm in many places in this country, it’s still not the norm in other countries. I don’t think you’re even allowed to enter Canada unless you’re able to show proof of this mRNA vaccine. So, that was inappropriate, because at the end of the day our view is that there needs to be choice in this regard. It’s also just the case, that scientifically, many people by 2021 had already had COVID and recovered. We believe in evidence-based analysis, and we believe that immunity through prior infection is real. Just like it’s been for every respiratory virus. And now the CDC, at least tacitly, acknowledged that but were denying that for a long time. That was anti-scientific, and it really exploded any type of rationale, really to do a remarkable infringement on people’s freedoms.”

DeSantis said the state was happy to push back against that and allow people to participate in events and do “what you want to do, without producing medical papers and participating in society,” without facing exclusion from being included, such as restaurants, movie theaters and other public events.

“There were some who didn’t want people who didn’t bow down to this altar of these vaccines, they didn’t want them, they wanted them to be marginalized, they wanted them to have less rights, they wanted them to even potentially be denied education and opportunities and that was never going to fly in the state of Florida, and so we’re happy to have taken a very strong stand there. People said at the time ‘why can’t a business force someone to do a vaccine, passport, to go,’ and I said, you know what, first of all, I think I want people’s freedoms to be respected to participate, which is more important to me than what some business does. You know what, if one business did passports, people would’ve said Florida has passports, and we would not have had record breaking tourism in 2021, I can tell you that. So it’s been the right thing to do.”

DeSantis said that when there was the prospect of federal and business mandates over vaccinations, including businesses and municipalities in Central Florida, the fights put Florida “squarely on the side of the individuals and their right to work, and their right to work regardless of the choice they made in regard to the COVID vax.”

He highlighted the special session about COVID-19 protections in 2021, which “saved thousands and thousands of jobs,” in Florida, according to DeSantis.

“It was really problematic, especially when you had a lot of the people who were kind of frontline folks, especially nurses and first responders, potentially getting fired, after they were the ones doing all of this hard work all the way through COVID. Now you’re going to fire them because of this? Give me a break,” DeSantis said. “Fast forward to this June with the Special Olympics. They imposed on the athletes a COVID vax mandate. So, if you were not allowed, if you did not submit and did not get the COVID vax, you would be denied the ability to compete in the Special Olympics. What connection that has to competing, I don’t understand. Some of the stuff, we’ve never seen something wielded like this vaccine to try to marginalize disfavored people, to try to deny people full freedom and full rights. To go after Special Olympians, all they wanted to do is compete, is not consistent with Florida law, and it’s not the right thing to do. Let them compete. We want everybody to be able to compete. So what has ended up happening is you’ve had some of these athletes from outside of Florida who have not wanted to do this, and basically assumed that they were not going to be able to participate. You had others who didn’t want to do it, but wanted to compete so badly that even against their judgement they ended up doing the vaccine.”

DeSantis referenced a story from a Kansas family who went to six different doctors to get a medical exemption. He said the doctors told them to get a first dose and that if they had a reaction to it, they would be able to get a medical exemption then.

“Well, the son with down syndrome did do that under pressure, had a seizure, was rushed to the hospital after his first dose, then he was granted the exemption, after having to go through that, which was so unnecessary, and it was just something that was totally ridiculous. And you’re seeing that over and over,” DeSantis said. “Where people are going to have to make these decisions, and it’s not necessarily…Some of it’s just personal choice, which is fine by me, but some of it, you actually have advise against doing this and a lot of these Special Olympians have had COVID by now, because a most people have had it by now. So to impose that mandate now in June 2022, didn’t make sense. Nevertheless, that was the posture we were in. I told Surgeon General Ladapo, look, Florida law requires them to be able to compete. So work together with Special Olympics International, let’s see. The people here in Florida agreed, they wanted them to be able compete, it’s really something outside our state, with the mandate being imposed.”

DeSantis said now, all of the athletes would be able to compete, regardless of vaccination status.

“This will be a relief to a lot of the athletes, although I think we do have to acknowledge that because it’s coming so late, some of the athletes will not be able to make the arrangements to be able to come and participate. So while there is not a mandate in place as of now, the fact of the matter is there may be some who logistically are not able to compete. We hope that the Florida athletes are all, there was a significant number of them who were in limbo, up until this week. It’s our view that we’re going to get almost all of them are going to be able to do, I know they’re working on accommodations to make sure everybody’s okay. But, this is a really significant event for these athletes, and in Florida we want all of them to be able to compete. We do not think it’s fair or just to marginalize some of these athletes based on a decision that has no bearing on their ability to compete with honor and integrity.”

The governor said it was important to engage in this, wishing that the state had not had to, that it had been resolved earlier, but that the issue was important and that the freedom to choose vaccination or not was applied “society-wide” in the state of Florida. He said the event was going to be great, and that there would be a lot of great competition.

Then he introduced the surgeon general to speak about the issue.

“I really wish we didn’t have to be here,” Ladapo said. “One of the people in my department likes to say this is the sixth inning of COVID. We shouldn’t be having these conversations at this point, from what we know about the pandemic. Scientifically, it makes zero sense. How can you force people to take a vaccine in order to stop transmission when that vaccine is not effective at stopping transmission? You don’t have to go to medical school to know that doesn’t make sense. And that’s what Special Olympics International was asking people to do. They weren’t asking people even to have a booster or anything like that. The scientific studies show that at this point, this far out, there’s basically zero protection from infection from the vaccines. Scientifically, it doesn’t make sense and it didn’t make sense. Ethically, it doesn’t make sense, it’s on the wrong side ethically. The governor’s described some of those reasons, I’ll add a little bit more to it. We don’t like to talk about safety, because it’s taboo. But safety is an honest conversation, that needs to happen. Many people, I’m sure people in this room, individuals who have experienced adverse effects after these vaccines, unlike other vaccines. Some people will say, millions of people have taken these vaccines, they must be safe. Well you can’t know the answer to that when it’s taboo to talk about having reactions after the vaccines. And there’s another reason why we know there is almost certainly something different happening after these vaccines. Because there’s another vaccine that over 100 million Americans take every year, that’s the influenza vaccine, the string of adverse events that I’ve heard from people all over this country after these vaccines is nothing like the years of my life when I’ve been in medicine and have been administering the influenza vaccines to people. There is a difference. You can’t say that millions of people getting it excuses you from that difference.”

Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration state that the two mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 are safe and effective. The CDC also continues to report vaccines provide protection from transmission of the virus, though not 100%.

“Current evidence indicates that fully vaccinated people without immunocompromising conditions are able to engage in most activities with low risk of acquiring or transmitting SARS-CoV-2,” the CDC reports.

Ladapo said DeSantis’ point about the legal ramifications regarding vaccine passports also made sense, that the passports had been “illegal in this wonderful, great state for over a year.”

The surgeon general said that conversations with Special Olympics International had started six months ago. Despite the committee posting about the new decision on vaccinations being made “days ago,” Ladapo said the state had worked on getting this outcome for months, and that athletes had “felt coerced” to make a decision ahead of the event, choosing to vaccinate against their judgment or canceling participation as a result of the requirement.

“For all the people outside of the Special Olympics who have been in the same situation, employees, students, everyone, professionals, who have been in the same situation facing a decision where there was coercion to undergo something that they didn’t want to undergo,” Ladapo said. “It is wrong, people have tried to convince Americans that it’s the right thing. It is the wrong thing. There is no changing that.”

Ladapo said he was glad that “as many athletes as possible” would be able to compete now that the policy has changed and that he hoped people would be able to find accommodations in time.

“The broader message that I want everyone to know if it’s not clear already, thanks to the governor, Florida is a state that will fight to protect your rights, the governor will fight to protect your rights, many of our Florida lawmakers will fight to protect your rights, and I will fight to protect your rights,” Ladapo said to the cheers of the gathered crowd.

DeSantis took the stage again to introduce new speakers, thanking Ladapo and saying that “it’s good to know we have a surgeon general who actually believes in evidence-based medicine, not ideology.”

Florida competitors in the Special Olympics, and their families, took the stage, praising the governor for his work to help them compete despite vaccination requirements for the event.

Hall spoke after.

“I currently serve as the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary, I’m also here because I volunteer and I serve as a board member for the Special Olympics in Florida,” Hall said. “I want to thank, truly thank, the governor who is not afraid, who won’t back down from a fight. He will not back down.”

Hall said that while he wasn’t speaking for the full board, he wanted to explain that Special Olympics Florida has fought to defend their athletes, and differentiated the state’s board from the international one.

DeSantis offered words of encouragement to the competitors gathered, then did a question and answer session.

The governor said that discussion with the Special Olympics International included the laws passed in 2021, regarding penalties on the organization had they not reversed their vaccine policy. DeSantis said that not only was it a bad look for the organization to exclude people, but that it was financially a risk for the organization. He did say as well that the committee did not have the right to impose that policy on Florida, that the state laws had been on the books for a while already.

“Finally we were able to come to a situation where the athletes could compete,” DeSantis said. “It just would not be the same with some of the athletes on the sidelines.”

He also addressed the coming storms in Florida, saying they were not hurricanes, but saying there would be a lot of rain Friday. “Nobody’s going to emergency posture,” but said if that changed, the state was ready. DeSantis said his comments were based on an update provided by the National Hurricane Center on Friday morning, then reminded those gathered about the hurricane supplies tax holiday still in effect.

The governor also discussed some of the vetoes in the state budget and the state budget surplus and rainy day fund levels, praising the higher than estimated revenue levels in Florida. He also said the inflation levels are among the “negative signals” that the state is preparing for as interest rates, grocery costs, and gas prices continue to rise. He blamed bad policies in the nation’s capitol for the economic concerns.

When asked about the veto of the $35 million for a Tampa Bay Rays training facility in Pasco, DeSantis said he doesn’t “support giving taxpayer dollars for sports stadiums, period. At the end of the day, that was just the decision that was going to be made. Now, companies are free to engage or not engage with whatever discourse they want, but clearly it’s inappropriate to be doing tax dollars for professional sports stadium, it’s also inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation. So either way it’s not appropriate. We were not in a situation where use of tax dollars for a professional stadium would’ve been a prudent use.”

DeSantis said the limits for what state funds would be spent on had been kept to, outside of the interests of specific companies. He said funding had been added for school safety and security, and mental health initiatives.

“Going back to Columbine,” DeSantis said. “This has become something where these deranged psychopaths have certain targets, and go to schools as a way to maximize the trauma to a community. They’re very evil people. But what they also are, is they do look for areas where they ‘re going to be able to get away with it.”

Referring to the shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., DeSantis said the shooter had said he would go “to places where I don’t have to worry about concealed carry,” saying the shooter had wanted targets that would be “sitting ducks” and telegraphing that he’d sign a school safety bill that added improvements to the Parkland Commission.

“I can tell you, when I got elected governor and took office, I met with a lot of the Parkland families, and one of the things that they were so frustrated about was that there was not an adequate effort to rescue their kids,” DeSantis said. “The shooter didn’t meet the quick resistance that he should’ve met. You had a lot of folks that could’ve been held responsible, and nobody had been held responsible. So when I came in, we decided to do something about that. We removed the sheriff of Broward County. Nobody in this country in elected office has done more to support law enforcement than me. We have people flooding into this state, submitting applications to work in state agencies.”

DeSantis said he backs the blue, “I know how important it was,” saying you wouldn’t have seen him marching against the police during the protests in 2021. He said there were times to step up, and while they were not easy, but you had to step up when people could not defend themselves.

“What we did with Parkland was say we were going to hold law enforcement accountable as well,” DeSantis said. “That’s the thing. You could have the best security in the world, but if you don’t have folks that are out there when it really counts, which very well may have happened in Texas, then it’s not going to amount to much.” He said the state has high standards for its officers and promised continued accountability.

Speaking on accountability, he turned his criticism on President Joe Biden for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the deaths of the 13 service members during the exit.

“Who has been held accountable for the debacle in Afghanistan?” DeSantis said. “I don’t think a single person has been held accountable, seems to me that would call for some accountability, it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, it doesn’t take back, you’re not going to get back those 13 service members lives back by holding people accountable, but I think it makes it less likely that it’s going to happen again in the future.”