After a bill banning vaccine passports ping-ponged back and forth between the House and Senate for a week, the Legislature has now passed the bill.
The bill now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for his signature. If signed, most provisions in the bill, including the vaccine passport ban, start July 1.
The House was the final chamber to pass the bill 78-36 Thursday with no debate. The Senate passed the vaccine passport ban earlier Thursday evening.
The bill’s final legislative hurdle occurred against the backdrop of a Miami school making national headlines for threatening to fire vaccinated teachers and new vaccine threshold guidelines that would allow cruise ships to sail again.
The bill would check off some of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pandemic-related priorities. In fact, several provisions in the bill would codify into law some of the ways DeSantis chose to handle the pandemic in the state of Florida.
Language in the bill said the Legislature’s intent is to “minimize the negative effects of an extended emergency” as it relates to the economy or schooling.
DeSantis has made the rounds on television and in speeches pitting Florida’s open policies for schools and businesses during the pandemic against “lockdown states.” DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order for nonessential workers in April, though he has largely kept Florida open compared to other states.
On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Danny Burgess, the bill’s sponsor, told Senators not to vote for an amendment Sen. Jason Pizzo wanted to add that could have complicated the bill’s passage once it was sent back to the lower chamber.
“We’re at the end of the line, and we’ve come a long way with this bill in the House and Senate. I believe we’re both ready to accept what we have before us, and it’s taken a long time for us to get here and unfortunately, I’m not sure that that would be the case if this was to get onto this bill,” Burgess said.
Pizzo’s amendment would have addressed a recent problem in his district where a Miami private school told teachers they could lose their job if they get vaccinated and instructed children not to hug their parents for longer than five seconds if their parents had been vaccinated. The amendment failed in a dramatic 19-19 vote. Pizzo’s amendment would have made it so a business or institution could not discriminate against someone who has been vaccinated.
Senate Democrats also questioned Burgess on the constitutionality of telling a business that it cannot require vaccine passports. Burgess said he did not know how a challenge to a vaccine passport ban play out in the courts.
“I imagine we’ll find out. I believe that we have the right to try to do a lot of things to best address a situation like a global pandemic and a lot of this is new,” Burgess said.
One industry motivated to require vaccine passports is Florida’s struggling cruise industry. A recent letter from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cruise industry executives said the companies can resume passenger operations in July “in a way that mitigates COVID-19 risk.” The guidelines say cruise ships can cruise if 98% of crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated.
“They finally got the guidelines and not, literally, the day after, we want to (pass) law to actually tie their hands to not be able to follow the guidelines for them to actually get cruising again,” Sen. Annette Taddeo said.
The vaccine passport ban in this bill is similar to an executive order banning vaccine documentation Gov. DeSantis signed in early April, which expires when the state of emergency expires, in that it has a financial penalty.
Businesses or schools that require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination could get slapped with a $5,000 fine for each affected customer or student under the bill, which would make it difficult for cruise ships to ignore the law.
Vaccine passports aren’t the only new laws proposed in the 49-page bill. The legislation would make changes to the state’s Emergency Management Act to “better address the threat posed by pandemics or other public health emergencies,” according to a staff analysis.
Burgess said the bill has a provision that “authorizes the Governor to invalidate an order that unnecessarily restricts individuals’ rights or liberties.”
The bill also limits local emergency powers, another sticking point for Democrats, and limits the Governor’s ability to mandate the closure of schools or businesses during an emergency.