ORLANDO, Fla. — Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida Republican leaders took a victory round Thursday in Brandon, where DeSantis signed four new laws as part of his ongoing campaign against federal and local COVID-19 mandates.
The new laws were passed by the Florida legislature during a special session this week in Tallahassee.
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HB 1B addresses the mandates directly, including federal vaccine mandates, corporate mandates, and local mandates against vaccines, masks, or school quarantines, and imposes some hefty fines against violators.
HB 3B protects employees who file a complaint against a private employer violating COVID laws by creating a public records exemption so you can’t learn their identities from state documents.
HB 5B is exploring the possibility of creating a state office for occupational safety and health, something more than two dozen states and two US territories already have.
HB 7B takes the ability to order vaccinations away from the state health officer.
Here are five things to know about the new laws:
HB 1B adds more exemptions against vaccinations
HB 1B is in response to President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates for health professionals employed by companies participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and federal contractors and employers with more than 100 employees.
Those mandates already allow for exemptions for religious or medical reasons. HB 1B adds the following exemptions for private employees:
Expected Pregnancy Reasons
Periodic testing or use of personal protective equipment, to be provided by the employer
Employers who don’t allow these waivers and fire employees risk fines up to $50,000 per violation.
Employees “wrongly terminated” are eligible for unemployment benefits.
The law also prohibits local governments from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, from teachers to first responders, to remain employed. Those governments can face fines of up to $5,000 per violation.
HB 1B Codifies DeSantis School COVID Orders
Earlier this year, DeSantis banned mask mandates in local school districts, citing the new parental rights law and saying parents had the right to decide whether their children should wear masks at school.
HB 1B codifies this order, as well as a rule from new Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, to ban mandatory quarantines for students and staff exposed to COVID-19 if they show no symptoms.
The law also prohibits schools or local officials from imposing COVID-19 vaccinations on students.
DeSantis’ mandates already face challenges in federal court.
Constitutional questions surrounding HB 1B
Whether HB 1B is constitutional is a big question at this point. Lawmakers cite the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states:
However, in the Florida Legislature’s analysis for HB 1B, the staff cites a potential impediment in the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, Article VI, Section 2, which states:
The personnel analysis shows that in the past the courts have extended the supremacy clause to rules set by federal government agencies.
Florida is already suing the federal government over the private employer mandate, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody announced Thursday they would sue to end the vaccine mandate for health professionals.
So far, the courts have supported companies’ vaccine mandates. However, a federal mandate is an entirely different matter. The OSHA mandate is currently under an order from a US court. Since the majority of US Supreme Court justices interpret the Constitution strictly, it will be interesting to see what they decide to do with the federal vaccine mandates.
Why Florida Wants To Create Its Own OSHA
HB 5B instructs the governor’s office to develop a plan to create a state office for worker safety, similar to US OSHA, in time for the January 2022 legislative session.
A workforce analysis shows Florida is looking to set up its own OSHA so it can issue improved policies and also be flexible with the needs of the state’s workforce.
The law that OSHA enacted in 1970 allowed states to carry out their own plans with OSHA approval. The state-run agency must have “standards at least as effective as federal OSHA standards,” according to the HB 5B Analysis of Legislative Staff.
Currently, 21 states and Puerto Rico have their own state plans, which cover both private and public employees, while another five states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have plans for government employees only.
The OSHA approval process requires a plan to be submitted that includes state laws, regulations, and procedures, enforcement plans, an appeals process, and adequate staffing. Even if the plan is certified, it doesn’t mean the state automatically gets final approval from OSHA. However, if Florida’s plan is rejected, the state can appeal to a federal administrative judge.
HB 7B removes a skill Florida surgeon general never used
The Florida surgeon general can declare a public health emergency and requires medications and other measures. However, HB 7B means they can no longer mandate vaccines.
The state’s top health official received broad emergency powers from the Florida legislature after 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks.
This allowed the surgeon general to declare a public health emergency due to the opioid epidemic in 2017, which gave first responders access to the overdose drug Nalaxone without a prescription.
It also empowered the surgeon general to examine, vaccinate, treat and quarantine a patient during a public health emergency, even if the patient is unable or unwilling.
HB 7B only affects the ability of the state health officer to order a vaccination, but, as the personnel analysis says, this specific power has never been used since its implementation in 2002.
Other required vaccinations in Florida, such as school vaccinations, are mandated by state law.
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