Gov. Ron DeSantis earned a major win Thursday, signing a “freedom agenda” of bills to curb COVID-19 policies and mandates.
The four bill signings come the morning after the Legislature passed them during this week’s Special Session. DeSantis called the Special Session as the legislative front to combating President Joe Biden‘s vaccine mandates.
DeSantis frames his opposition to the vaccine mandates as a defense of personal freedoms against unconstitutional orders.
“To say it should be mandated when you can still get it, this is a personal choice, so that’s what we’re doing, and that’s the science-based approach to say it should be a personal choice,” the Governor said.
Among the bill’s provisions is one granting the Department of Health — led by DeSantis’ recent controversial appointee, Surgeon General Joe Ladapo — rule-making authority over COVID-19 protocols in schools. A draft rule, which will be considered during a two-hour meeting scheduled for Tuesday, allows schools to adopt requirements for students to wear masks if the schools let their children opt out. The rule also lays out the procedures schools must follow for COVID-19 positive students and for students exposed to positive COVID-19 students or staff.
The second measure (HB 3B) would protect the private health and religious records from being made public over the course of an investigation into a COVID-19 policy.
Another bill (HB 5B) asks the Governor’s Office to develop a roadmap for a state workplace safety plan, a course that could lead Florida to withdraw from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. However, the state plan would need to be as strict as OSHA’s requirements and approval must go through the federal government.
The Biden administration has planned to use OSHA to implement its vaccine and testing mandate on businesses with 100 or more employees. Florida and other states have sued the federal government over that order, leading to a court order that paused the mandate from taking effect.
DeSantis sued the Biden administration hours after the federal government released the OSHA plan.
“You read this, it’s 500 pages and they actually explicitly reject immunity through prior infection even though we have all this evidence,” DeSantis said. “So you wonder if that’s how they’re doing that, what else may they be doing based off junk science or ideology, and it was not a very impressive display from OSHA.”
The final bill (HB 7B) would limit the Surgeon General’s emergency powers. In 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11 and an anthrax scare, lawmakers granted the Surgeon General several emergency powers, including the authority to mandate vaccinations “by any means necessary.” The power had never been used, but it became a target during the Special Session.
“Important for sure, but Joe Ladapo was not going to forcibly stick anybody, so don’t worry about that,” DeSantis said.
Ladapo, a vocal opponent of mask mandates, government shutdowns, and vaccine mandates, said Florida is going “back to the data” with the new laws.
“There is no data that shows an improvement of health with these massive mandates for children. Zip, there’s nothing, and it should stop,” Ladapo said. “It’s completely divisive. It doesn’t help kids. It should end.”
Florida on Wednesday sued the federal government over an order slashing federal dollars from health providers that don’t require their employees to get vaccinated. Senate President Wilton Simpson contrasted the order, which would lead unvaccinated nurses and health care workers to lose their jobs, against the universal praise given to medical workers during the pandemic.
“Thank you for getting us through the tragedy, thank you for putting your families at risk, but now we’re going to put your family at risk,” Simpson said. “We are not going to do that in the state of Florida.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls called the four bills the “Florida Freedom Agenda.”
Democrats, whose caucuses were mostly unified in opposing all four bills, began releasing statements criticizing DeSantis, Republicans and the new laws.
“It’s a disgrace the Governor chooses to call a symbol of technological and medical advancement ‘the jab’ to continue scaring people and confusing them about the effectiveness of the vaccine,” said House Democratic Leader Bobby DuBose. “We need to continue listening to public health and medical experts to get over this pandemic and truly let Floridians prosper.”
Others, like House Democratic Whip Ramon Alexander and House Democratic Policy Chair Fentrice Driskell, called the bills the “DeSantis Ambition Tax,” an allusion to the Governor’s re-election and possible presidential ambitions. They said politicizing the pandemic will come at the cost of taxpayers and businesses.