The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Florida’s Republican lawmakers deliver another blow for DeSantis against the common good

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signs a bill restricting vaccine and mask mandates in his state at a signing ceremony in Brandon, Fla., on Nov. 18. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, doesn’t often ask for help. He is a go-it-alone kind of guy who has largely chosen to tackle the coronavirus pandemic solo, making a calculated political wager on Darwinian logic, balmy weather and the hobbled common sense of many Floridians.

The results earned Florida top 10 status in per capita U.S. covid-19 deaths — nearly 61,000 as of Friday. But, hey, at least the state’s economy is rolling!

Recently, though, DeSantis changed his tune out of necessity. He needed the power of the Republican-packed Florida legislature to help him officially free us Floridians from the tyranny of President Biden’s vaccine mandates.

On Wednesday night, during a legislative special session, lawmakers passed a package of bills making it harder for businesses to make sure their Florida employees are vaccinated, and impossible for local governments and schools to require masks or vaccines.

The legislature handed DeSantis a political gift. He can now proclaim to his Republican base that he is America’s freedom-iest leader. Then, in a stroke of political theater on Thursday, DeSantis signed the bills into law in Brandon, Fla., amid a predictable fanboy chorus of “Let’s go Brandon,” a cryptic insult aimed at Biden.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) decried coronavirus-related mandates at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

The victory was the governor’s latest assault on the noble notion of collective good — a term now seemingly viewed by his supporters as communism writ large.

“I’m a farmer. I look at things in simple terms,” said state Sen. Ben Albritton (R) on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “What I believe that we are doing here today is we are choosing to support, protect and defend individual rights.”

Democrats tried to counter with logic and verifiable facts, a daring tactic in the Sunshine State: More than 195 million Americans have been vaccinated and, with extremely rare exceptions, they are fine. Most of those in intensive care units are unvaccinated. Children have long been required to get vaccines to go to school. George Washington forced his soldiers to get smallpox vaccines to help win the Revolutionary War.

Then, Democrats evoked the days, not so long ago, when people were hoarding toilet paper and feared that touching a box of cereal at the supermarket might be deadly. Remember how badly we wanted a vaccine? The Democrats even threw the Republicans a bone, pointing out that the vaccine success story was President Donald Trump’s doing.

“What has happened to us as a country?” state Sen. Gary Farmer (D) asked on the Senate floor. “Sacrifices are made for the greater good. Not for the squeaky, loud wheel over here who puts rationality and science aside because they want to make a statement.”

Children, and teachers, also fell outside the reach of the greater good. The new law codifies that parents, not public schools, decide whether children should wear masks or get vaccinated. Parents who sue defiant schools that ignore the law can recoup their attorneys’ fees if they succeed.

Luckily, DeSantis did not get everything he wanted. He pushed for an outright ban on vaccine mandates for private-sector employees and threatened to strip offending companies of their covid-19 liability protection, a rare anti-business gambit by the governor. But lawmakers, apparently haunted by visions of diminished campaign coffers, recoiled. It would have meant aggravating Disney, for example, which mandates vaccinations and masks for most employees at its sites.

Instead, Florida companies can require vaccinations as long as they offer five opt-outs: medical or religious exemptions, evidence of natural immunity from covid based on a medical test, or the willingness of the employee to be tested periodically or wear a mask. Exemptions under the new law also include pregnancy or “anticipating pregnancy,” a vague term that presumably gives cover to practically all women in the workforce. If these alternatives are not offered, businesses risk fines of at least $10,000 per violation.

The Biden administration also offers exemptions, only they are narrower. Health-care and nursing-home workers can apply for religious or medical carve-outs. And other private-sector employees of large companies can opt out by getting tested every week.

The new Florida law also forces some businesses into a tug of war between the state and federal government. Hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid stand to lose crucial funds if they don’t adhere to Biden’s vaccine mandate.

DeSantis and Republican legislators have abandoned any pretense of conservative opposition to big government, wresting control from schools, local governments and private companies — the entities that would know what’s best for their own communities, employees and bottom lines. They are even planning a new agency, a state version of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to skirt Biden’s rules.

There is, however, a sliver of good news to come out of this not-so-special session: The legislation expires in June 2023. Let’s hope by then it will have become irrelevant.