A House committee on Monday advanced a proposal that would prohibit businesses and government agencies from requiring people to take COVID-19 tests or wear masks to enter their facilities, with the measure’s sponsor calling such mandates “discriminatory practices.”
The proposal would build on prohibitions passed by the Florida Legislature earlier in the pandemic regarding health measures such as vaccination requirements, which are top priorities of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Under the plan approved by the House Health & Human Services Committee Monday, businesses and governmental entities would be barred from denying services to people who refuse to wear masks or take COVID-19 tests. Businesses and agencies would be prohibited from firing or refusing to hire people based on “postinfection recovery status or the person's failure to take a COVID-19 test,” and could face fines up to $5,000 for each violation of the measure.
The Republican-dominated committee approved the bill (HB 1013) in a 12-5 vote Monday, with Democrats decrying its potential impact on private companies.
“The keyword is private. Private businesses have the right to make their own decisions,” Rep. Marie Woodson, D-Hollywood, said before voting against the proposal.
But Rep. Griff Griffitts, a Panama City Republican who sponsored the bill, argued that the proposal is designed to fight discrimination.
“We’ve known that things have changed dramatically over the last two years, and we have to take that into account. All this is doing is taking the discriminatory practices off what we’ve learned over the last two years, which people were either being discriminated (against) for jobs, education or employment opportunities based on discrimination from COVID-19,” Griffitts said.
The measure also would impose similar prohibitions on educational institutions, including provisions that would bar institutions from requiring COVID-19 tests or imposing mask requirements. Under the bill, educational institutions also could face $5,000 fines for violations.
The measure also would add requirements for health-care practitioners. It would require practitioners to “obtain the informed consent” of a patient or their legal representative before prescribing any medications to treat coronavirus. Under the bill, informed consent would include an “explanation of alternative medications” for treating COVID-19 and the “relative advantages, disadvantages, and risks” associated with those drugs.
A House staff analysis of the measure included Hydroxychloroquine, Ivermectin, Methanol and herbal medicines as examples of such “alternative” medications. Use of drugs such as Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin sparked nationwide debates during the pandemic, with DeSantis in 2020 backing the state’s bulk purchase of Hydroxychloroquine for use by health care providers.
Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, argued that the bill “goes way too far.”
“I think that we’ve gotten to a point where we use science only when it serves our own best interest and the point that we wish to make,” Cross said.
The measure has one more committee stop before it can be considered by the full House. A similar bill (SB 252) also is moving in the Senate.
This year’s proposals follow a series of pandemic-related measures passed during a special session in 2021. DeSantis called for the special session after battling for months with President Joe Biden’s administration on issues related to the handling of COVID-19.
Under the 2021 laws, Florida private-sector workers can avoid vaccination requirements if they provide medical reasons, religious reasons or can demonstrate “COVID-19 immunity.” Also, they can be exempt if they agree to regular COVID-19 testing or agree to wear personal protective equipment. Employers could face fines up to $50,000 per violation if they don’t properly follow the law.
Lawmakers in 2021 also barred government agencies from requiring workers to be vaccinated and reinforced a law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that banned student mask and vaccination requirements in public schools.
While DeSantis promoted vaccinating people, particularly seniors, after the drugs became available in 2020, he later became a high-profile opponent of vaccination mandates and has raised questions about the effectiveness of the shots.
In December, the Florida Supreme Court approved a request by DeSantis to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate alleged wrongdoing related to COVID-19 vaccines.
The approval came after DeSantis submitted a request that alleged “there are good and sufficient reasons to deem it to be in the public interest to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate criminal or wrongful activity in Florida relating to the development, promotion, and distribution of vaccines purported to prevent COVID-19 infection, symptoms, and transmission.”