TALAHASSEE – The Florida House is expected to give final approval on Wednesday to a wide range of rules related to COVID-19 mandates.
The bills would give employees exemptions from all employer-required vaccinations. To get an exemption, the laws would require employees to state medical or religious reasons or to prove immunity from a previous infection.
To get an exemption, the laws would require employees to state medical or religious reasons or to prove immunity from a previous infection.
During a special legislative session, Republican lawmakers will also seek to expand an existing law known as the “Parent’s Bill of Rights” to ban school mask requirements.
State lawmakers passed the Parent’s Bill of Rights at the 2021 legislative session this spring, and Governor Ron DeSantis signed the measure in June.
Republican supporters of the legislation framed the measure as a way to combine several provisions of existing state law that deal with parental consent, such as provisions regarding information that families should know about their children’s education and health care.
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But the law was at the center of discussions about school mask mandates when DeSantis used it in part as the basis for an executive order in July seeking to ban student mask requirements.
DeSantis’ executive order led to a Sept. 22 emergency rule by the Department of Health that said parents should “have their own discretion” about whether or not to wear masks at school. The rule also prohibits schools from directing asymptomatic students to self-quarantine at home after exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved a broad measure (SB 2-B) that aims, among other things, to exempt employees from employer-required vaccinations against COVID-19. The panel passed the bill by 7-4 votes along partisan lines.
The proposal includes a provision that would extend the Parents’ Bill of Rights to ban mask requirements for students and quarantine asymptomatic students—effectively cementing the health department’s rule into state law.
“We know that if an asymptomatic student is in our classrooms, they probably don’t pose a threat to others. So we recognize that,” Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who chairs the committee and sponsored the measure, told the panel Monday.
But Senator Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, argued that COVID-19 mitigation requirements should be determined at the local level.
“School districts, mayors, councilors, commissioners, they know what’s going on in their communities and how they want to make sure people stay safe. Leave it to the locals. Why are we intruding, into a politically driven piece of legislation,” they said.
Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Rep. Fentrice Driskell DeSantis of using the Parent’s Bill of Rights as “both a sword and a shield” in his executive order.
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“The (law) was never intended to be used to endanger children. So if the governor twists it this way, it leads to this perverse outcome for me where he basically says that certain parents have rights that are supreme for other parents,” said Driskell, D-Tampa. ‘Because he says… ‘What about the parents who don’t want their kids to wear masks?’ Well, what about the parents who want their kids to be safe in the classroom?”
The identical measures approved Monday by the House and Senate committees also aim to ban public schools and higher education institutions from imposing COVID-19 vaccinations on students or employees.
The proposals would allow parents to sue school districts that require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, wear masks, or quarantine asymptomatic students after exposure to the virus. Parents who prevail in court may face attorney fees and court costs.
“Simply put, we have to trust that people are making the best decisions for themselves and their families. There are vaccines available to anyone who wants them. There are therapies, other treatments…that have been developed or are being developed. Treatments are available, Burgess said.
But the proposed ban on school vaccination mandates has been criticized by Democrats on the Senate panel.
“This anti-vax rhetoric will also lead to teething troubles, and I’m afraid this bill will get us started,” said D-Boca Raton Senator Tina Polsky.
The House Commerce Committee on Monday approved an identical measure (HB 1B), sponsored by Republicans Erin Grall of Vero Beach and Ralph Massullo of Lecanto.
Democrats on the House panel questioned the need to ban the mandate of student masks. Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, pressed Massullo, who is a dermatologist, on that part of the bill.
“From your medical point of view and education, which I have the greatest respect for… what is the harm that can happen to a child who goes to school, my child who goes to school, has to wear a mask?” Geller asked.
“The downside is that children need to be social during early life development and have a lot of psychological problems that are precluded by their interactions with others,” Massullo replied.
The special hearing is expected to conclude on Thursday.