By Paul LeBlanc and Amy Simonson, CNN
The Florida Health Department has levied a $3.5 million fine against Leon County for violating the state’s ban on vaccine passports.
The county was in “blatant violation of the law,” the state Health Department said in a statement, outlining a fine of $3,570,000 because the Leon County government had required employees to provide documentation of their Covid-19 vaccination and ultimately terminated 14 people for their refusal or failure to comply. The department noted “714 counts” in violation of the ban.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had cited freedom and privacy concerns as the primary basis for his vaccine passport ban in April, and later vowed to fine counties and cities in the state in violation of it. The fines underscore the Republican governor’s broad resistance to the public health measures and mandates that experts say are key to curbing the pandemic and preventing future outbreaks.
“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,” DeSantis said in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue fighting for Floridians’ rights and the Florida Department of Health will continue to enforce the law. We’re going to stand up for Floridians’ jobs, stand up for Floridians’ livelihoods, and stand up for freedom.”
But Leon County Administrator Vincent Long told CNN in a statement, “The County strongly contends that our employee vaccination requirement was not only completely legally justifiable, but it was a necessary and responsible action to take to keep our employees safe, protect the public, and ensure our readiness as a frontline response organization.”
Long said that DeSantis’ position “unfortunately appears to be less of a public health strategy and more about political strategy” and the county “fully intends to enforce its rights using any remedies available to settle all arguments about the applicability of the statute at issue.”
DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic has positioned him at odds with President Joe Biden, who has elevated vaccine mandates as an important tool in the US’ national response.
“We’re facing a lot of pushback, especially from some of the Republican governors. The governors of Florida and Texas are doing everything they can to undermine the lifesaving requirements that I’ve proposed,” Biden said in a speech last month specifically calling out DeSantis and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas.
“This is the worst kind of politics because it’s putting the lives of citizens of their states, especially children, at risk. And I refuse to give in to it,” the President said at the time.
For DeSantis, his fight with the White House — as is the case with the policies he pushed opposing mask mandates and lockdowns — helps him with a narrow but politically powerful segment of the Republican Party, boosting his national prominence ahead of a 2022 reelection campaign and a potential 2024 presidential bid.
But Biden and his top officials are keen to call out DeSantis’ continued flouting of medical recommendations in the fight against the virus, believing that making him an example could encourage other governors to do more.
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CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.