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Special session of Florida Legislature on vaccine mandates begins Monday

Florida representatives work through a legislative session, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers are gearing up for a special session on vaccine and mask mandates set to begin Monday.

Three key pieces of legislation are in play and what ultimately makes it across the finish line is still to be seen.

The biggest agenda item for the upcoming special session would require businesses to provide exemptions from any employee vaccine mandate.

Violations come with fines between $10,000 and $50,000.

Employees would have to be allowed to opt-out of an employer’s vaccine mandate for medical or religious reasons.

Employees could also prove they have existing immunity or opt for employer-provided testing or PPE.

“There are significant portions of our population with actual health concerns about this,” said Rep. Alexander Andrade, who is sponsoring one of the special session bills.

Small business groups say their only concern is ensuring the law is clear.

“Easy for any business owner to understand of what constitutes a business vaccine mandate,” said Bill Herrle, executive director of NFIB Florida.

But Democrats like Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith take issue with the bill’s blanket ban on public sector vaccine mandates.

“COVID-19 is the No. 1 killer of law enforcement in Florida,” said Smith.

There’s also a proposal to create the state’s own version of OSHA as a response to the federal OSHA vaccine mandate that spurred the special session in the first place.

“If OSHA is now gonna become this kind of, you know, enforcement arm of White House policies without any kind of Congressional oversight, absolutely the state should go assert its jurisdiction in that space,” said Andrade.

“There are a number of states who have it,” explained News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney. “There are 22 states that do, but it takes typically years to implement. It’s kind of costly, and in the end, you have to be approved by the federal government and there’s federal oversight. I’m not sure that it will be effective in dealing with this particular issue vaccine mandates right now, but it is something that will be discussed in the upcoming session.”

The third bill, which Andrade is carrying, would remove the Surgeon General’s emergency powers to require vaccinations during a health emergency.

“Providing comfort to folks right now that no, the state’s not going to force you to get a vaccine,” said Andrade.

Smith fears what that could mean for a future pandemic.

“Imagine a virus that has a 90% fatality rate,” said Smith.

Most uncertain is whether Republicans have the votes to impose the fines businesses would face for violating vaccine exemptions.

They’ll have just five days to work out a deal.

About the Authors:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.