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Politics / Issues
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Democrats say Florida's special session on vaccine and mask mandates is 'political theater'

Evan Jenne speaks on the House floor
Meredith Geddings
/
Florida House of Representatives
House Minority Co-Leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, told reporters that the special session “isn’t about good public policy,” saying the GOP-backed bills are aimed at ramping up a feud between Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden.

They say it's Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to enhance his standing as a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

As a special legislative session called by Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off Monday, House and Senate Democrats blasted measures being considered by the Republican-controlled Legislature as “political theater” designed to enhance the governor’s political ambitions.

The special session will center on Republicans’ opposition to COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements, with DeSantis, who is widely mentioned as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, spearheading the effort to block such mandates.

Proposals up for consideration during the special session (HB 1B and SB 2B) seek to ensure that workers can receive exemptions from employer-required vaccinations against COVID-19 and prevent governments from mandating that employees receive the inoculations. Another measure (HB 5B and SB 6B) would move the state toward withdrawing from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight.

House Minority Co-Leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, told reporters Monday morning that the special session “isn’t about good public policy,” saying the GOP-backed bills are aimed at ramping up a feud between DeSantis and President Joe Biden.

“This is political theater. This is not about helping anyone. This is not about guaranteeing anyone’s freedoms. This is not about governmental policy. This is about two men having a measuring contest that they should have in private, and instead they’re letting it spill out in front of full public view,” Jenne said.

Lawmakers this week also will consider a bill (HB 7B and SB 8B) that would strip the state surgeon general from being able to mandate vaccinations during public health crises. Although Democrats have lambasted the state’s current Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, Rep. Fentrice Driskell called the proposal shortsighted.

“It seems to me a bit, perhaps, counterproductive to remove this as a tool in the toolbox of our … surgeon general. Because you just don’t know what emergent circumstances might present themselves. So, leaving it as an option, to me, would be the more prudent course of action," Driskell, D-Tampa, told reporters Monday.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, stood alongside several of his House colleagues during a press conference in the Capitol Monday as he rattled off a list of “serious issues” facing Floridians that won’t be covered during the special session.

“We have an affordable housing crisis that needs to be addressed. We have to fix unemployment for so many of those Floridians who are still struggling to obtain their benefits. We have to expand health care, especially for those workers who lost their access to health care during the pandemic,” Smith said. “Gov. DeSantis doesn't want to address any of these issues. Instead, he wants us to come back here to debate masks and COVID-19 vaccines, again.”

A group of Senate Democrats also railed against the bills Monday, saying that the legislation won’t do anything to help small business owners who have struggled throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“I'd like to figure out the unemployment system. I'd like to come up here and talk about condo safety and affordable housing and, you know, the 100,000 septic tanks in Miami-Dade County that need conversion because they're killing Biscayne Bay, which is a huge commerce and tourism generator for coastal communities,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, told reporters during a press conference Monday morning.

The special session, which is expected to last through Thursday and is taking place less than two months before the regular legislative session begins Jan. 11, comes as DeSantis continues to push back against vaccination mandates issued by Biden’s administration.

The state has filed lawsuits challenging vaccination requirements for federal contractors and businesses with 100 or more employees. The Biden administration wants those requirements to take effect Jan. 4. DeSantis has also said the state will challenge a Biden administration move to require vaccination of workers at health-care facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes, that take part in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

But Pizzo said much of the language in the special session legislation is vague and criticized the proposed sanctions against business owners who terminate employees who haven’t received vaccinations.

“If you have a truly a small business owner, guy owns a barber shop with a couple of chairs, and he has a $10,000 fine, that's completely, incredibly disproportionate to $50,000 for a company that might have 3,000 employees,” Pizzo said.

Pizzo, a former prosecutor, described the legislative measures as “yet another series of bills that are quickly drafted without a lot of deliberation,” adding that the proposals appear “to accommodate assertions or platitudes or statements made by the governor."

And Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said the special session won’t help the state end the nearly two-year-old pandemic.

“Here we are giving license to people, for many, many reasons to be able to opt out of getting a vaccine. And I think it's the exact opposite approach that we should be taking to encourage vaccination,” Polsky said.

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