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Florida county is fined for requiring employees to be vaccinated

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Governors in two big states are at odds with the federal government and public health experts over coronavirus vaccine mandates. Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Monday signed an order banning any public agency or private business from requiring workers to be vaccinated. In Florida, the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis issued a $3.5 million fine to a county with a vaccine mandate. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The law Governor DeSantis signed prevents government agencies or businesses from requiring people to show proof of vaccination. The law, which went to effect last month, sets a $5,000 fine for each violation. Nonetheless, Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor was shocked this week when Florida's health department hit the county with a $3.5 million fine for requiring its more than 700 employees to be vaccinated.

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BILL PROCTOR: To just be fined three, $4 million because you don't do what I say in an area of policy is unheard of. It's barbaric.

ALLEN: Leon County is home to Tallahassee, the state capital. County commissioners say they'll go to court to fight the fine. They may have lots of company. The Orlando Sentinel this week published a list of 120 public and private entities that are being investigated by the Department of Health for possibly violating the Florida ban on vaccine mandates. Governor DeSantis says he doesn't know which local governments or other entities might be fined next because it's being handled by agencies within his administration. But he says Florida's law on COVID vaccinations is clear.

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RON DESANTIS: We're going to make sure people are able to make their own choices. We're not going to discriminate against people based on those choices, and you're going to have a right to operate in society.

ALLEN: Governor DeSantis' effort to stop vaccine mandates has already been challenged by a business, Norwegian Cruise Lines. In August, a federal judge stopped Florida from applying the law to its cruises on which all passengers must be vaccinated. Orange County's government is also on the list of entities being scrutinized. Mayor Jerry Demings hasn't been notified yet that the county is violating Florida's law but if so, says he's ready to fight.

JERRY DEMINGS: At this point, you know, the courts have not reached the final decision, but the indication is that the Florida law flies in the face of our Florida Constitution.

ALLEN: Florida's ban on vaccine mandates also runs counter to federal policy. The U.S. Labor Department is expected soon to issue regulations requiring businesses with 100 employees or more to have all workers vaccinated. DeSantis says he'll fight that, too.

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DESANTIS: What's happening in the private sector is I think some of these businesses are scared of the feds, and they think that they need to do that. And I think every worker, not just police and fire, but I think every worker should be protected from losing their jobs over this.

ALLEN: In Washington, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki fired back this week. She said in Florida and in Texas, the governors are putting politics above public health.

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JEN PSAKI: Why would you be taking steps that prevent the saving of lives, that make it more difficult to save lives across the country or in any state?

ALLEN: DeSantis, who's seen as a leading candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, says he doesn't believe he has the authority to block private employers from firing unvaccinated workers. He says that might require action from Florida's Legislature.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "BREATH AND START") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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