Special session on vaccine mandates: What do Tampa Bay lawmakers think?

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As Gov. Ron DeSantis stood in Clearwater Thursday morning and urged a special session of Florida’s lawmakers to tackle vaccine mandates, Tampa Bay legislators didn’t have the specifics for what that would mean.

As of Friday, those lawmakers still had not received formal policy information about the ideas DeSantis floated.

Some of DeSantis’ suggestions include making businesses liable for medical harm if an employee is required to get a vaccine and allowing parents to collect attorney’s fees if they sue a school district for coronavirus restrictions.

Florida’s legislative leadership, who both hail from Tampa Bay, put out a joint statement supporting the call for a special session.

“In the coming days, we will review the governor’s specific proposals as well as discuss our own ideas for legislative action,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said in the statement. “During the upcoming special session, our goal is to make our laws even more clear that Florida stands as refuge for families and businesses who want to live in freedom.”

With information still sparse, some of Tampa Bay’s legislators said they couldn’t comment on how they’d vote. Democrats in the area said the move was a political stunt by DeSantis, with many of them accusing him of doing it to score points for a 2024 presidential run. Most Republicans said they support a session, but some said they need more information before knowing what legislation, if any, they would back.

Here’s how Tampa Bay legislators reacted to the news of a special session.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg

At the news conference, DeSantis said he’d like to see the Legislature adjust its 2021 law protecting businesses from coronavirus-related civil liability to remove those protections if a business mandates vaccines.

That 2021 bill was introduced by Brandes and quickly became a top initiative for Florida’s Republicans.

Brandes said he was surprised by the House and Senate response to DeSantis’ call for a special session and that they seemed to be caught off guard. Until there is specific language, he said, he’s just shooting in the dark, but he feels there are some things floated he wouldn’t have an issue with.

But when it comes to the business liability bill he urged last session, SB 72, Brandes said businesses shouldn’t be penalized with stripped protections for following a federal law.

“If anything we should strengthen (the law), not pull it back,” Brandes said. “We should add an additional layer for healthcare liability because of the delta variant and other variants that are going to follow. It’s hard to penalize a business for following a law, even if it’s a law we don’t like.”

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg

Rouson said he disagrees with holding a special session on the issue. As of Friday morning, he said he hadn’t heard directly from Senate leadership outside of Thursday’s joint statement issued by Sprowls and Simpson.

“Special session should be called for extraordinary things that cannot be handled during committee weeks and regular session,” Rouson said.

Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor

Hooper said he “ping pongs” with himself on the issue. As a former firefighter, Hooper said seeing first responders leaving their jobs over a vaccine mandate makes him concerned about public safety. He’s also been flooded with emails from Disney employees upset about the company’s vaccine mandate.

But as an individual, Hooper said he believes in vaccines and is currently seeking his booster shot. He said he has yet to meet anyone who had coronavirus who didn’t wish they were vaccinated before it, and he doesn’t understand why people would be reluctant to get a shot when they could end up intubated without its protections.

“But ain’t America great?” Hooper said. “Sometimes you get to make decisions that may or may not be in the best interest of your family and yourself.”

Whether mandate rules should be enforced or prohibited, though, will come down to the policy.

“I guess when I see the proposed bill language that comes out I’ll have to decide green button or red button at the end of the day,” Hooper said.

Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon

Learned said he felt a special session about vaccine mandates was inappropriate when the Legislature did not convene sessions to tackle unemployment or overstuffed hospitals.

“But now when it’s good for Gov. DeSantis’s presidential primary politics, now he calls a special session,” Learned said.

He also highlighted that even among the governor’s party, the only person who had called for a special session was Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills.

Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa

Toledo, reached Thursday morning, said she didn’t know details and hadn’t gotten formal notice about what the session was about, but she assumed it must be important.

“I’m assuming if it’s called by the governor it’s imminent and something we have to address,” Toledo said.

Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa

Hart said if the legislators were to return for a special session, it should be to address other urgent issues, like housing.

Too many people she’s known have died from coronavirus to be hesitant on vaccines, Hart said, and she encourages everyone to get a shot.

“I didn’t think there was anything wrong with asking people or mandating you get a vaccine,” Hart said. “Why gamble with public health?”

Rep. Susan Valdés, D-Tampa

When Valdés heard about the governor’s call, she said she felt that it was a political move, government overreach and anti-business.

Immunization requirements have long been the norm in public schools, Valdés said.

“To punish businesses for taking care of their employees and their customers this is ludicrous,” Valdés said.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa

After the governor’s press conference, Driskell set up her own press conference with two other Democrats to denounce DeSantis’ move.

She said the governor’s call against vaccine mandates forces the hand of small businesses trying to protect their employees.

Driskell highlighted that a number of vaccines are mandated in Florida, including for public schools. She said those high health standards are what have made Florida and the United States strong.

“There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that Gov. DeSantis has about science and about the role vaccines have played in America,” Driskell said.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg

Diamond said DeSantis’ plan was a move to win the favor of an extreme wing of the Republican party for a future presidential run. DeSantis has dismissed speculation he would run for president.

Diamond said legislators should be focused on creating laws that protect a business’ ability to implement public health measures and keep employees safe, not what he said was the opposite in what DeSantis has proposed.

“It’s just another example of the governor playing politics with our health and with our economic recovery,” Diamond said

Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson

Mariano said she hadn’t watched the governor’s press conference and would be reluctant to comment on the proposals until there was concrete language. She said if she was called to go up for a special session, though, she’d be happy to serve.

“I certainly don’t like vaccine mandates in general, but it really would depend on the proposal,” she said.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto

Massullo said he’ll be supportive of DeSantis’ proposed policies in a special session and that he’s skeptical of the idea that people who have had the virus need the vaccine. He said DeSantis is a deliberate man, and if he thinks a special session is needed, it’s for a reason.

Massullo, a working physician, said he encourages people to get vaccinated, including the staff of about 70 people at his dermatology practice, but he doesn’t require it. On his staff there are about 35 individuals who won’t get vaccinated, which he believes may be based on “propaganda that’s been promulgated from various sources.”

“I think it’s regretful that some of them are not but in a free country as ours I believe that’s their choice and their right,” Massullo said.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa

Along with other Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, Cruz put out a combined statement denouncing the governor’s move to push a special session.

“Senate Democrats will continue to stand up for the values, principles and policies that ensure Floridians can live freely and safely from government overreach,” the statement said.

Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia

Beltran said he still doesn’t have much information about the session, but would be in favor of going up and having a discussion about exempting people who have already had coronavirus from any kind of vaccine requirement. “They already have the antibodies, and they probably have just as good immunity as the vaccine,” Beltran said.

Sens. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton; Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills; Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland; and Reps. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover; Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach; Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater; Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg; Tommy Gregory, R-Bradenton; Randall Maggard, R-Dade City; and Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, did not immediately return a request for comment.

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