The Florida Health Department fined a county government over $3.5 million Tuesday for violating the state's ban on vaccination passports — the first time the state has punished a locality for defying the ban.
The Health Department said in a statement that officials in Leon County, where Tallahassee, the state capital, is located, violated state law when they mandated in late July that the county's 700 employees provide proof of vaccination no later than Oct. 1. Then, on Oct. 4, county officials fired 14 employees for failing to comply with the requirement.
"It is unacceptable that Leon County violated Florida law, infringed on current and former employees' medical privacy, and fired loyal public servants because of their personal health decisions," Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said in a statement.
DeSantis, who has consistently resisted mask and vaccination mandates even as case numbers rise, signed a bill in May to ban vaccination passports — particularly banning local governments from requiring any person, including an employee, to provide proof of vaccination. The law, which took effect last month, also provides for fines of $5,000 per violation.
Leon County Administrator Vincent Long said in a statement Tuesday that the county believes its vaccination requirement is "legally justifiable" and necessary to keep the public safe.
"The governor's position in this instance unfortunately appears to be less of a public health strategy and more about political strategy," he said. "Leon County fully intends to enforce its rights using any remedies available to settle all arguments about the applicability of the statute at issue so that we can continue to direct our full and undivided attention on combating the virus, protecting our employees and citizens, and fulfilling our obligations to our community."
DeSantis has been under consistent scrutiny by critics for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and he has also taken heat from the White House over his resistance to implementing stringent public safety guidelines.
Other GOP-led states, such as Texas and Montana, have also enacted laws against mandating masks, vaccinations and proof of vaccination. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order Monday banning any entity in the state, including private employers, from requiring Covid vaccinations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that DeSantis and Abbott are "putting politics ahead of public health."
"Over 700,000 American lives have been lost due to Covid-19, including more than 56,000 in Florida and over 68,000 in Texas," she said. "And every leader should be focused on supporting efforts to save lives and end the pandemic."