Gov. DeSantis signs COVID-19 legislation, announces lawsuit against federal government over Medicaid funding

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BRANDON, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed four bills from the COVID-19 special legislative session this morning in Brandon, committing the state to new vaccine rules and choice-focused mandate bans into law.

“Well we’re really excited to be here, because when I sign this legislation today, you know you hear so much, mandates, restrictions, tearing people down. Today, we lift people up,” DeSantis said. “We provide protections for people, no nurse, no firefight, no police officer, no trucker, anybody should lose their jobs over these COVID jabs. And that’s what we’re doing.”

The governor was joined by Attorney General Ashley Moody, Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson at Brandon Honda for the signing ceremony. The four bills had been largely expected to pass, even with unified Democratic opposition, due to the Republican majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

The COVID-19 special session’s outcome, while not a surprise, was faster than initially expected, ending on Wednesday after three days instead of going for the full five originally planned.

The four bills passed in the Florida House and Senate on Wednesday night.

The new laws tackle Florida leadership’s concerns over everything from mask mandates and vaccine requirements to rules from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration governing vaccine mandates for federal workers and businesses with more than 100 employees.

The new laws begin the process to separate Florida from OSHA for workplace safety oversight, limit business vaccine requirements for employees and provide clear exemption options for workers, create penalties for businesses that violate state COVID-19 vaccination exemption policies, create public records exemptions for medical and religious information in the scope of investigations of businesses for refusing COVID-19 vaccine exemptions, and remove the ability of the state’s Surgeon General to mandate vaccines.

In a release to news media Wednesday night, Florida’s legislative leadership said passage of what they call the “Keep Florida Free” joint agenda described the special session as a win for Floridians.

“We are proud to stand alongside every Florida parent and worker and say that forced masking of our kids in schools and forced vaccinations to keep your job stops here in Florida,” Sprowls said. “We are proud to stand alongside businesses and provide some sanity and options to treat their employees as the individuals they are instead of succumbing to a one-size-fits-all federal mandate. The result of this week’s work is simple: No one who is subject to Florida law will be forced to get a vaccine who does not want one.”

Simpson echoed a similar sentiment.

“Today we are sending a clear message that Florida stands for freedom. To our health care workers, law enforcement, first responders, farmers, truckers, and every other worker who never got a day off and couldn’t work from home during the pandemic – thank you for getting us through this crisis. Thank you for putting your family at risk,” Simpson said. “You stood with us when we needed you most, and we are proud to stand with you now. The Florida Legislature and Governor DeSantis are fighting for you.”

For both lawmakers, and the governor, the push to fight off federal vaccine requirements was largely a fight against government overreach, but their Democratic colleagues say the session was a waste of time and purely political.

Thursday morning, AG Moody also announced a new lawsuit against the federal government over the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services rules regarding funding and vaccination.

“Seeing his job approval ratings plummet and losing control of the media narrative, President Biden, who once lauded these medical professionals as heroes sacrificing their safety to save Americans from COVID, now abandons them in a feeble attempt to score political points at the worst possible time,” Moody said in a statement before the event. “Making another disastrous policy decision based on politics just as pandemic burnout is thinning our health care ranks and creating a dire staffing shortage.”

The attorney general expanded on the lawsuit while in Brandon for the bill signing.

The lawsuit

AG Moody took the podium amid cheers. She said being in her home county, in Brandon, was an honor. The crowd began chanting “Let’s Go Brandon” briefly, before she discussed the lawsuit announced Thursday.

She said the governor had spent the pandemic protecting Floridians through a lens of protecting the freedom and autonomy of the state’s citizens.

“And as this administration,” Moody said, referring to the president, “we have seen time and time again make ill-informed, senseless, misguided policy decisions and force them upon Americans, in this instance the majority of the American workforce, we have pushed back. When President Biden said ‘I know it’s unlawful, I’m sure I’ll be challenged in court, bring it on,’ we brought it! And we will continue to do so.”

She said Florida and other states that challenged the temporary OSHA rule had seen success, with the rule now blocked in federal court, and said the state would be taking the fight to CMS over the vaccine requirements for federal funding.

“I am proud to again stand with our great Florida leaders like Gov. DeSantis and take formal legal action to protect Florida workers,” Moody said. “But I also personally would demand that this president and his administration look at the data, make decisions that are based on the welfare and individual circumstances and freedom of our citizens, and not on some radical extremist liberal agenda that they keep imposing on the American people.”

State Surgeon General Ladapo spoke next.

The legislation’s intent

“I’d like for people to really take in how important what the Florida lawmakers, under the leadership of DeSantis, have done,” Ladapo said. “It’s actually, it’s incredibly important, we’ve had a period of time over the last year and a half where we’ve had medical hegemony. We’ve had the medical field impose on people’s ability to educate their children, to work, to choose the conditions under which they work, to even open their businesses and even move around their communities. And unfortunately we’ve had leadership that tried to normalize that.”

Ladapo said the leadership and legislative work by DeSantis, Simpson and Sprowls was important to serve as an example to other states to find a balance between providing protection against the health threat of COVID-19 but still find life meaningful.

“The other thing that’s worth noting, that I love about this legislation. Is this belief that you don’t control your body. That your body belongs to Dr. Fauci. And he gets to decide what you do with your body, what you do with your face, what your kids get to do,” Ladapo said. “This is part of what’s been attempted to be normalized over the past year and a half, it’s completely wrong, it is spiritual warfare, and another thing about this legislation is that it stands against that. You control your body, it doesn’t matter how many times they try to tell you that you don’t get to make that decision. God gave it to you, it’s your body.”

He said the legislation “brings us back to the data” and that the efforts to mask children in school and the push for vaccination was a “relentless” effort, which did not have proof that children’s health was improved by it.

“Now we’re back to the data,” Ladapo said. “There’s no data that shows an improvement of health with these mask mandates for children. Zip. There’s nothing. And it should stop. It doesn’t help children, it’s divisive, and it should end.”

Senate President Simpson spoke about the importance of the legislation for Florida’s families, echoing his points in previous statements. Speaker Sprowls spoke similarly, and asked if the crowd was ready to watch DeSantis, “the boldest governor in America” sign the legislation.

Sprowls said actions to keep the state open during the pandemic and the new legislation would show the federal government and the president that “Florida stands for freedom.”

He thanked Moody for her aggressive actions as the attorney general and highlighted the protections “against the heavy hand of government” put in place by the new laws and thanked the bill sponsors for writing the new laws, particularly the separation from OSHA and removal of the vaccination mandate power of the surgeon general.

Supporters of the legislation from across Florida spoke before DeSantis signed officially the bills into law.

The language of the laws

Here are the four bills, aimed by the state at protecting Floridians’ health choices and autonomy when it comes to vaccines, masking and workplace COVID-19 restrictions and requirements.

HB 1B/SB 2B is intended to protect students, parents, workers and employers through strengthened protections for vaccine exemptions for employees, parents and children.

The bill, as written, bans vaccine mandates for employees in both government and public education settings, while also preserving the rights of parents to choose whether or not to mask, vaccinate, or quarantine their children. It also prevents private sector businesses from requiring their workers be vaccinated, without providing the following exemption options:

  1. Medical reasons, as determined by a physician, advanced practice registered nurse, or physician assistant. Medical reasons include pregnancy or expectation of pregnancy. 
  2. Religious reasons, based on a sincerely held belief 
  3. Immunity based on prior COVID-19 infection, as documented by a lab test 
  4. Periodic testing, agreeing to comply with regular testing at no cost to the employee 
  5. Personal protective equipment (PPE), agreeing to comply with use of employer-provided PPE 

HB 3B/SB 4B creates public records exemptions for personal medical information and religious information that can be contained in files during investigations of businesses that refuse to provide exemptions for COVID-19 vaccination in the workplace. The exemptions mentioned are those set by HB 1B/SB 2B.

HB 5B/SB 6B is the bill that begins Florida’s process of separating from OSHA, the federal workplace safety agency, and creating a state-run version of it. Now law, Gov. DeSantis will have about two months to present a plan for creating the state agency to take over OSHA’s safety oversight and regulation.

The proposal for the state-led workplace safety agency must be presented to the Senate President and House Speaker for approval by Jan. 17, 2022. After that, the process gets more complicated as the state creates its safety agency and must get federal approval for their own version.

HB 7B/SB 8B is the last of the four bills to make it to the governor’s desk from the special legislative session. Its goal was simple, remove the ability of the state Surgeon General to mandate vaccinations in Florida. It was drafted in response to fears of expanded executive power, particularly in light of the federal vaccination requirements currently being fought over in courts across the United States.

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