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Attorney’s advice for Florida businesses: ‘Don’t test the statute’ on vaccine passports

Florida to issue $5K fines to businesses that require patrons to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination

Florida on Sept. 16 will start issuing $5,000 fines to businesses that require patrons or customers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
Florida on Sept. 16 will start issuing $5,000 fines to businesses that require patrons or customers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida on Sept. 16 will start issuing $5,000 fines to businesses that require patrons or customers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.

“That gets our attention for sure,” said Numa Saisselin, president of the Florida Theatre.

It’s a penalty that the Florida Theatre plans to avoid.

“We’re clear on what the law says we can and can’t do, and we have been and fully intend to keep complying,” he said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill earlier this year that banned vaccine passports. The statute reads that a business entity “...may not require patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or postinfection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business operations in this state.”

The same rules apply to governmental entities and educational institutions.

The statute continues by stating that it does not otherwise restrict businesses, government entities or educational institutions “from instituting screening protocols consistent with authoritative or controlling government-issued guidance to protect public health.”

Finally, the statute reads, “The department may impose a fine not to exceed $5,000 per violation.”

In a case brought by Norwegian Cruise Lines, a judge temporarily blocked the law that bans vaccine passports in the state. In other words, Norwegian was allowed to ask for proof.

“That injunction applies only to Norwegian, as I understand it, so that case is continuing on,” said attorney and News4Jax legal expert Ed Birk.

The judge who ruled against the order said the law appears to violate the First Amendment rights of the cruise line and likely won’t hold up in court.

“First Amendment application is that it prohibits an employer or business from asking a question, and that’s a government restriction on speech,” Birk said.

The state is appealing the judge’s decision.

Birk said it’s not clear whether denying someone service based on their answer violates their rights. He wouldn’t be surprised if the law against proof or vaccinations is taken to court again, but he said that’s something small businesses can’t afford.

His advice? Be cautious.

“Don’t test the statute here,” Birk said. “Don’t walk the line. Don’t ask for vaccine proof or passports as they’re called.”

He said that instead, businesses should take other safety precautions, like posting signs asking customers to wear masks.

There are exceptions to this law. Health care providers can require people to show their vaccine status. The law doesn’t apply to employees. If a workplace requires vaccinations, it can fire an employee for refusing to show their status.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.