TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida businesses soon won’t be able to screen patrons based on whether they’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday, even as he signed a bill designed to shield companies from pandemic-related lawsuits.
DeSantis’ bill signing featured a musical performance by the band Highway 85, which was designed to showcase musicians’ worries about live performances amid the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis said. The event took place in the Cabinet room of the state Capitol, which is mostly closed to the public.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where people are scared of being sued, just for doing normal things,” DeSantis said. “We worked very early on to look at to see ways that we could provide some certainty for both businesses, and health care providers. This was obviously a top priority for many of us up here. And I think that the Legislature has been able to deliver today.”
But DeSantis also said an executive order was coming soon — possibly by Tuesday — against “vaccination passports” and called for the Legislature to pass a bill making a ban permanent. The Legislature is nearing the midway point of a 60-day session scheduled to end April 30.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” DeSantis said of the idea that proof of vaccination might be required by businesses or governments. “You want to go to a movie theater, should you have to show that? No. You want to go to a game, (or) a theme park? No. So we’re not supportive of that.”
He said allowing major corporations to have access to vaccination information was like having “the fox (guarding) the henhouse,” citing privacy concerns.
The bill, SB 72, is the first signed into law by DeSantis this year, and the first concrete action taken by the Legislature, which ended its 2020 session just as the COVID-19 was spreading heavily in the state and starting to close down businesses last March, since the pandemic began.
It passed the House on Friday on an 83-31 vote, mostly along partisan lines, with four Democrats joining Republicans in support of the bill, one week after it passed the Senate by a 24-15 vote, with Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando the only Senate Democrat in favor. The bill became effective immediately upon DeSantis’ signature.
Lawsuits brought by a customer or employee alleging they or a relative contracted COVID-19 at a business that didn’t take proper precautions against the virus would still be allowed under the bill, but would be more difficult to prevail in court.
COVID-19 claims against a business or health care provider now require an affidavit from a medical professional asserting the person contracted the virus the company’s property and need to have “clear and convincing evidence” of “gross negligence” – a high legal standard – to bring a case. Lawsuits also must be filed within a year from Monday to be considered valid.
Businesses that “substantially complied” with government-issued orders regarding COVID-19 precautions at the time when the virus was contracted, or were unable to comply with those guidelines because of shortages of personal protective equipment, have a valid defense against any pandemic-related claims under the new law.