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Florida fights back against federal vaccine mandates with a new set of laws

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Florida is fighting back against federal vaccine mandates with a new set of laws. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis says they're about individual freedom and protecting jobs. Now, he signed four bills yesterday, including one that fines companies if they don't let workers opt out of vaccine requirements through a number of exemptions. WLRN's Veronica Zaragovia is here to tell us what this means now for Florida businesses. Veronica, the main law creates new ways for Florida workers to avoid their company's vaccine mandate. What are the options?

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: Right. Well, the federal government has said companies with more than 100 employees will have to require those workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly. Now in Florida, workers can get out of the vaccine requirement by giving a medical reason like a pregnancy or religious reason. They can also demonstrate what the new law calls COVID-19 immunity. That would be done with a medical test, but the law provides no other specifics. An employee can also be exempt if they agree to regular COVID-19 testing or agree to wear personal protective equipment.

MARTINEZ: OK. So what does this mean now for businesses?

ZARAGOVIA: Well, companies can be fined up to $50,000 per violation if they don't follow the law. So there is a tension now between state and federal rules. The federal rules on vaccine mandates for businesses are on hold right now because of a federal court ruling. But if they do take effect, companies will have to decide whether to follow the federal requirements or face potential penalties there. Or they'll have to decide what it would mean to violate the state laws and face possible fines.

MARTINEZ: Now, the new law also bars public schools from imposing mask mandates for students. What's behind this section of the law?

ZARAGOVIA: Right. The governor has been fighting with some Florida school districts that imposed mask mandates even though he had issued an order banning mask mandates in schools. And the state has withheld the salaries of some school board members who supported the mandates. The issue has been in the courts as well. So now under the new law, those districts have to leave it up to parents to decide whether to send their children to school with a mask.

MARTINEZ: At the federal level, I know that OSHA is setting up rules for vaccine mandates at large businesses. How does the new Florida law, Veronica, try to free the state maybe from these rules altogether?

ZARAGOVIA: Well, A, the law directs the state to propose its own agency that would oversee workers' safety and health issues. But that's unlikely to happen anytime soon because first it will take a lot of time for the state to hire this staff and come up with a plan. And then OSHA itself would have to approve Florida's proposal.

MARTINEZ: These Florida laws were passed during a three-day special legislative session called by the governor, and Democrats were outvoted on these measures. What's their reaction been to this?

ZARAGOVIA: Well, they're saying that the governor is making it harder to control the spread of COVID-19 and rejecting the proven protections against serious illness that these vaccines give to people. One of them said that this session could have focused, for instance, on Medicaid expansion. Florida has so many uninsured residents. A lot of Democrats say he likely wants to run for the presidency down the road, and he's courting voters instead of working with Democrats on public health.

MARTINEZ: That's WLRN's Veronica Zaragovia. Thank you very much.

ZARAGOVIA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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