TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The county government that is home to Florida’s capital was fined $3.5 million Tuesday by state health officials for requiring its employees to get COVID-19 vaccines and for firing 14 workers who failed to get the shots.
The Florida Department of Health issued the fine for Leon County, saying the municipality violated Florida’s “vaccine passport” law which prohibits businesses and governments from requiring people to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
“These are people that, presumably, have been serving throughout this whole time and now all of a sudden they’re basically getting kicked to the curb,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference in St. Petersburg Beach.
Later, the governor tweeted, “No one should lose their jobs because of COVID shots.”
The law took effect last month and can result in a $5,000 fine per violation. It is being challenged in court and conflicts with a Biden administration order that companies with more than 100 employees require their workers to be vaccinated or face weekly testing.
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In a statement, Leon County Administrator Vincent Long said he was made aware of the fine through media reports.
“There is a genuine disagreement about the applicability of the statute and rule, and the county will enforce its rights using any remedies available at law, if necessary,” Long said.
The decision to fine Leon County comes a day after the Orlando Sentinel reported the state is investigating dozens of local governments, performing arts centers, the Miami Marlins, a law enforcement counter-terrorism unit and a concert by singer Harry Styles for violating the law.
Around 120 cases are being reviewed for violations, according to a public records request from the Orlando Sentinel.
In central Florida, the list includes Orange County government; the Orange County Convention Center; AdventHealth, one of the state’s largest healthcare systems; several performing arts venues; and the Amway Center, which is home to the Orlando Magic and recently hosted a concert by Styles whose tour mandated that attendees either be vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test.
“At this point … the courts have not reached the final decision, but the indication is that the Florida law flies in the face of our Florida Constitution and perhaps in the face of common sense,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings told the newspaper.
In South Florida, those being investigated by the Florida Department of Health include the Marlins, the only major sports team on the list; the city of Miramar; the Plantation Police Department; and several performing arts venues.
Also on the list, around the state, are a Florida Department of Law Enforcement counter-terrorism unit in Jacksonville; the Gasparilla Music Festival in Tampa; and Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe. Several cruise ship companies also made the list despite a federal court order that has prevented enforcement of the law against Norwegian Cruise Lines.
During his news conference on Tuesday, DeSantis said his administration, in order to avoid firings, had worked with officials in Orange County and Gainesville, which also implemented vaccine requirements for employees.
The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale asks customers to provide documentation of a recent negative COVID-19 test, with the option of instead submitting proof they are fully vaccinated. The policy complies with comments made by DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, said Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the Broward Center.
During an Aug. 27 interview with the Florida Times-Union, Pushaw said the law “only prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers as a condition of entry or service.”
“If concert-goers can provide a negative COVID test instead of a vaccine passport, that is acceptable under the law,” she said. “People who want to show proof of vaccination instead of a COVID test are free to do that. It just cannot be compelled.”
Asked by the Sentinel on Monday if agencies or businesses that allowed a testing option in addition to a vaccine requirement were in compliance with the law, Pushaw said the law states that “mandatory vaccine passports are prohibited, but other COVID protocols are not necessarily prohibited.”
“An investigation is not a finding of a violation,” Pushaw said.