TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Early this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis made a tour of Florida, visiting hospitals and retiree communities, and celebrating those who had their shots.
But it was a remarkably different picture this week, when Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez, was a prominent speaker at a rally organized by anti-vaccination activists on the State Capitol steps.
The jarring scene gave vaccine skeptics in Florida a big win and moved the state further away from the guidance of federal public health officials, reflecting how a highly politicized pandemic has only become more so as Republican-controlled states confront the Biden administration’s wide-ranging attempts to ease it.
Florida has been perhaps the most aggressive of all the states. DeSantis’s supporters and his allies believe that the anger over state public health restrictions which drove Republicans to the polls in Virginia and New Jersey this month will drive them to the polls again next year. They also hope that it will help them grow their political base, and keep voters engaged as they head into the 2022 midterm elections. DeSantis is up for re-election next season and is considered a top 2024 Republican presidential candidate.
The new strategy has turned Florida politics upside down. It has created tension between Republican state legislators and big business, one their key constituencies. While the few remaining Democratic legislators have to defend local government efforts against the virus, the majority of them are Republican state legislators.
Republicans passed four bills to curtail vaccine and mask mandates on Wednesday, almost entirely along party lines. It was the culmination of a three day special legislative session that Mr. DeSantis called in such a quick manner that it caught even Republican leaders by shock. Mr. DeSantis stated that the session was necessary to end federal government overreach.
“No Floridian should be losing their job over Covid shots,” Mr. DeSantis, who has taken to dismissing the vaccinations as “jabs” or “injections,” said on Tuesday. “That’s a personal decision that people should be able to make.”
The opposition to vaccination requirements has empowered groups whose fringe views were supported by Republican legislators. This markedly differs from past Florida politics.
“The conscience of their caucus has been hijacked by extremes,” said Representative Ramon Alexander, a Tallahassee Democrat. “It’s a danger to democracy.”
Mr. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers insisted that they support Covid-19 vaccines — and in many cases noted that they have taken them.
“No one is arguing that the vaccine doesn’t work,” Senator Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, said on the Senate floor. “Thank God that we have a vaccine.”
House Speaker Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, a Republican, stated that the new legislation was intended to let Floridians make their own decisions.
“We’re getting to this place where nuance is lost on everyone,” he said. “You can be for a vaccine or for the opportunity for people to get a vaccine and still not support a massive government-forced vaccination.”
Similar paradigm shifts have been occurring in other Republican-controlled states, including Texas, where business leaders in the past most often saw their interests reflected in the actions of lawmakers. These same lawmakers are now channeling the wishes and promoting freedom of activists who oppose Covid vaccines.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), at least five other states have held or considered special sessions regarding pandemic mandates.
Florida has lost approximately 60,800 people to Covid-19. The virus ravaged Florida hard this summer. Its Delta variant flooded hospitals across the state with more people than any other time during the pandemic. The wave has ended, and recent hospitalizations and new cases have fallen to some the lowest levels in the country. About 61 percent of Florida’s population is fully vaccinated, slightly higher than the national average, according to federal data.
Critics of Governor Scott have claimed that he has been fighting against mandates, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Florida experienced its worst daily death tolls during this year’s summer surge, when vaccines were already widely available.
As cases escalated, Mr. DeSantis took on local school districts, governments, and those that required masks or vaccinations. He withheld funds, fined them or took them to trial. (Most school districts have relaxed their restrictions on masks in light of falling virus levels.
In June, the DeSantis administration declared a coronavirus emergency. It closed down all state-run mass vaccination programs and testing sites. The governor has not encouraged people to get boosters, or their children vaccinated, unlike when the vaccines were first released.
Instead, Mr. DeSantis urged police officers to move to Florida to get vaccinated if they are not from out-of-state agencies. In August, he said whether someone gets vaccinated “really doesn’t impact me or anyone else” — though society collectively benefits when more people get vaccinated.
The governor the following month stood on a podium in Gainesville next to a city employee who falsely claimed that a coronavirus vaccine “changes your RNA,” and did not challenge his assertion. “I don’t even remember him saying that, so it’s not anything I’ve said,” Mr. DeSantis said the next day.
The governor’s dalliance with vaccine doubters may have begun in April, when Mr. DeSantis declined to get his Johnson & Johnson shot in public, joking that he did not need to show off his biceps. (He has declined to say whether he has had a booster recommended for him or if he intends to get one.
In September, Mr. DeSantis picked as Florida’s new surgeon general Dr. Joseph A. Ladapo, an outspoken mask and vaccine skeptic who has not disclosed whether he has been vaccinated. Under his direction, the Florida Department of Health would have significant control over how the state enforces antimandate legislation.
Dr. Ladapo, a Boca Raton Democrat who refused to wear a mask, met with Senator Tina Polsky last month. She had previously stated that she had a serious medical condition and asked him to. Later, she publicly admitted that she had recently had breast cancer surgery.
On Wednesday, Ms. Polsky drew a line from the governor’s selection of Dr. Ladapo to Republican lawmakers’ tolerance of the anti-vaccination activists who filled legislative committee meetings this week.
“You can all say that you’re pro-vaccine and anti-mandate, but these actions are playing to this crowd,” she said on the Senate floor.
Many lawmakers worried that businesses wanted to retain the ability to impose mandates; many of the state’s biggest employers, including Disney, already have them. Business owners, they claimed, didn’t want to have to deal with conflicting federal or state laws.
The Biden administration has mandated federal employees and contractors to have their vaccines, as well employees of health care providers that receive Medicare or Medicaid. These federal mandates have been challenged in court by several conservative states, including Florida.
The legislature did not get as far as the governor hoped.
They also banned vaccine mandates for local government and public school districts. Parents had sole control over whether their children should be vaccinated or not. (The DeSantis administration fined Leon County $3.5 million last month for mandating vaccines for its employees — $5,000 for each person.)
Private businesses were allowed to mandate vaccines as long as they had exemptions for religious or medical reasons that were much more extensive than federal exemptions. Employees could also opt-out if they are willing to be regularly tested or wear protective equipment like masks. Employers would need to pay for the tests and provide the masks.
Employers with 100 employees or more were subject to $50,000 fines, and smaller employers are subject to $10,000 fines.
Lawmakers also allocated $1 million to the governor’s office to study leaving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a clear jab at the Biden administration’s workplace order.
The new legislation was overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats.
“Does this bill really truly attempt to keep Floridians safe?” said Representative Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, who contracted Covid while she was pregnant last year. “Or was it crafted to kick off a presidential campaign for our governor?”
Source: NY Times