Florida COVID ‘vaccine passport’ fines kick in Thursday for businesses, governments

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Businesses and governments that require customers to show proof of a coronavirus vaccine will start to face hefty fines on Thursday, but some details about how the new law will work remain unclear.

The Florida Department of Health will be responsible for enforcing the $5,000 per violation charge under a law blocking so-called “vaccine passports” signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this year.

The governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, and the health department didn’t answer questions from the Orlando Sentinel about how customers can report businesses asking for a vaccine passport and how investigations would work.

Pushaw said the law doesn’t prevent businesses from taking other safety precautions against the pandemic, which has killed nearly 50,000 Floridians so far.

“Under the law, nobody can be denied entry, service, or education because they decline to show a vaccine passport,” Pushaw said in an email. “Businesses are free to make their own policies regarding masks, testing, capacity, and other COVID protocols.”

The Department of Health will issue a notice of violation to anyone who violates the law, which will include the right to a hearing before an administrative law judge.

Fines will be paid to the department and are due within 30 days of a final order. Pushaw said because the rule doesn’t go into effect until Thursday, no one in the state had been fined so far.

The Lovely Boutique Market in Orlando’s Audubon Park neighborhood has never considered a vaccine mandate for customers, owner Kimberly Hellstrom said in an interview.

“We’ve never asked for the vaccine card, we really don’t care, as soon as you walk in we give you a mask,” she said. “For us, it’s all about masking up and social distancing.”

The boutique, which has three employees, has been requiring customers to wear masks, recently doing so ahead of Mayor Jerry Demings declaring an Orange County state of emergency in July.

“I wish everybody would get vaccinated, but it’s everybody’s right to say yes or no to that,” Hellstrom said.

The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association is encouraging its members to adhere to the law, and those businesses have other tools to protect public health like masking and social distancing, said senior vice president Geoff Luebkemann.

“The law is what it is,” Luebkemann said.

He added the restaurant industry is focused on trying to operate in a difficult environment as well as on staffing issues, and would not have the personnel to manage vaccine passports if they were legal.

Luebkemann said such an interaction between staff and a customer would be “fraught.” He gave the example of the vaccine documentation being electronic on a cell phone or in an original document.

“Who arbitrates this if there is disagreement between the requestor and the provider of this information?” Luebkemann asked.

But one industry is pushing back against the law.

A federal judge granted a temporary injunction on Aug. 8 against the law in a case from Norwegian Cruise Line, but the Department of Health has appealed the decision. Pushaw has previously said she believed the ruling would be overturned, but as other cruises require vaccination, the state is not enforcing the law until a decision on the injunction.

Disney Cruise Line is requiring passengers 12 and older to be vaccinated when sailing from Florida, following Royal Caribbean, Carnival, MSC Cruises and Celebrity.

Other companies have mandated vaccines for employees, but not customers, including The Walt Disney Co. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also developing a rule to require businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate workers to either get vaccinated or have a negative weekly test result.

But DeSantis has also said his administration will issue the $5,000 fines to cities and counties that mandate staff vaccinations, even though the law does not specifically ban businesses and governments from requiring vaccines for workers.

Attorney General Ashley Moody has argued the law covers employees and filed a brief supporting a worker suing the city of Gainesville over its vaccine requirement.

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