The ongoing feud between state and local officials in Florida over vaccine mandates escalated on Tuesday when one county was hit with a whopping $3.57 million fine for requiring COVID jabs for all employees.
The Florida Department of Health issued the fine against Leon County—home to the state’s capital, Tallahassee—over its “blatant violation” of Florida’s controversial “vaccine passport” law that prohibits governments and businesses from requiring residents to show proof they were vaccinated against the coronavirus. The notice states that the county broke the law 714 times in making all municipal employees show proof they’d been vaccinated. Fourteen workers were fired after refusing to get jabbed.
“It is unacceptable that Leon County violated Florida law, infringed on current and former employees’ medical privacy, and fired loyal public servants because of their personal health decisions,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement announcing the fines. “We will continue fighting for Floridians’ rights and the Florida Department of Health will continue to enforce the law. We’re going to stand up for Floridians’ jobs, stand up for Floridians’ livelihoods, and stand up for freedom.”
The hefty fine is the first under the Florida law against mandates that was passed in May. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on Monday barring any entity from enforcing a vaccine mandate on its employees and encouraged other state leaders to do the same.
Florida and Texas’ recent push to ban COVID vaccine mandates has even caught the attention of the White House. During a Tuesday press briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki accused Abbott and DeSantis of “taking steps that prevent the saving of lives.”
Despite threats from the state, Leon County Administrator Vice Long instituted a vaccine requirement for his employees in July. On Oct. 6, the Florida Department of Health Division Director Douglas Woodlief notified Long he was in violation of the law after the county fired several employees for refusing to comply with the mandate.
Some state officials expressed their outrage over the fine. Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) called it “an overreach of state government,” while Sen. Loranne Ausley (D-Tallahassee) blasted DeSantis for “spending his time punishing counties working to keep their citizens safe.”
“Unbelievable!” Ausley said in a statement. “We don’t need the State bullying our communities or private businesses who are simply trying to serve the people and get on the other side of this pandemic. It’s going to take all of us standing together to make this happen.”
Long said he hadn’t even heard about the health department’s decision until he saw media reports on it.
“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.
Leon County residents are also pissed about the fine.
“It's all just political posturing,” Christopher Link, a Tallahassee resident, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “ It makes no sense and only hurts the taxpayer. The fact that the better good for the health of the state is so wrongly politicized is insane. The crazies have taken over, really.”
Another Tallahassee resident, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation, told The Daily Beast that she “wished the fight was against stopping the coronavirus—not against political leaders who feel like they have to appease their base.”
“This pandemic has been going on for over a year, and I’ve never really felt like the priority in Florida was about saving lives. Just careers,” the resident added.
DeSantis’ press secretary insisted the state is simply “enforcing” the law.
“Leon made the county decision to break the law,” Christina Pushaw told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “So if anyone is worried about the consequences for taxpayers—frankly [Leon County] should have thought about that before they decided to break the law. Breaking the law was worth it to them.”
The fine is the first public indication that DeSantis intends to follow through on his threat to “defend” Floridians against vaccine mandates. Last month, DeSantis promised that he would start issuing $5,000 fines to any government agency, business, or school that tried to force residents to show proof of vaccination, stating that the requirement could create a multi-class system.
“One, I’m vaccinated, I am offended that someone would make me show something just to go to a restaurant or just to live life,” DeSantis said during a Sept. 3 press conference. “My view is we got to protect people’s ability to live their lives. I don’t want a biomedical security state in which are constantly having to do this just to be able to live everyday life.”
On Tuesday, health officials noted that the threat of multi-million dollar fines has already caused one local government to reverse its stance on vaccine mandates. Last week, the City of Gainesville rescinded its employee vaccination mandate after the Florida Department of Health notified the municipality it had possibly violated state law.
“This reversal also follows an Eighth Judicial Circuit Court temporary injunction preventing vaccine mandates for city employees,” the health department said in a Tuesday statement.
According to state law, after the health department issues the notice of violation, a hearing may be held before an administrative law judge. Once the final order is issued, however, Leon County has 30 days to pay the fine.
“We are confident that the enforcement action taken by the Florida department of health is lawful, and Leon County’s termination of loyal employees due to personal medical decisions is illegal,” Pushaw said.