November 30, 2023

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New Florida laws ban COVID mandates, allow health care to be denied

TALLAHASSEE — With opposition to COVID-19 mandates a key part of his political brand, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a bill that includes issues such as barring businesses and government agencies from requiring people to take COVID-19 tests or wear masks to enter their facilities.

DeSantis held a bill-signing event in Destin on the same day that a federal public health emergency for COVID-19 was set to end. But DeSantis pointed to a need to address the potential of future government mandates.

“The danger is now, one of the reasons that we are doing this bill is, yes in Florida we are glad that we stood firm,” DeSantis said. “But a lot of the elites and the bureaucrats think that this response is how you should do it again in the future if something like that happens.”

The Republican-controlled House and Senate passed the bill (SB 252) during the legislative session that ended last week. Lawmakers also passed a similar measure during a 2021 special session, but key parts of that law will expire June 1 — the same day much of the new bill takes effect.

After Florida schools and large parts of the economy initially shut down in 2020 because of the pandemic, DeSantis made a high-profile issue of getting students back into classrooms, reopening businesses and eliminating mandates. He frequently touts his handling of the pandemic as he gears up for a widely expected White House bid in 2024.

“When the world went crazy, when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue, the state of Florida stood as a refuge of sanity, as a citadel of freedom,” he said during the event Thursday.

The bill addresses businesses, government agencies, schools and health care providers. Among other things, the bill:

  • Prohibits businesses, government agencies and schools from requiring people to provide documentation showing they have been vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 to gain entry to the facilities.
  • Prohibits businesses, government agencies and schools from requiring people to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 as a condition of employment.
  • Prohibits businesses, government agencies and schools from requiring people to wear masks to gain entry. The bill also requires the Florida Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration to develop standards for “appropriate use of facial coverings for infection control” in health care facilities.
  • Allows the attorney general’s office and Department of Health to levy fines up to $5,000 for each violation of the mandate prohibitions.
  • Prohibits hospitals from interfering with patients’ ability to choose “COVID-19 treatment alternatives” as recommended by physicians or other providers with privileges at the hospitals.

In addition to the pandemic-related bill, DeSantis also signed a measure (SB 1580) that will give health care providers the right to opt out of certain services based on a “conscience-based objection.” The bill would not apply, for example, to emergency services that are required under state or federal law.

By Jim Saunders and Tom Urban, News Service of Florida

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