ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida threatened to fine the Special Olympics $27.5 million for requiring 5,500 participants at this weekend’s USA Games in Orlando to be vaccinated against COVID, prompting the organization to drop the mandate.

“There needs to be a choice in this regard,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at an event in Orlando surrounded by a cheering crowd. “Let them compete. We want everyone to be able to compete.”

The news of the dispute was first reported by Jay O’Brien of ABC News.

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In a letter sent to the Special Olympics International on Thursday, the state Department of Health said the organization’s requirement that athletes show proof of vaccination violated state law. It said there had been several attempts by health officials to avoid imposing fines and bring the event into compliance by not requiring proof of vaccination.

But the Special Olympics “was unable to bring the event into compliance for the benefit of their delegates, and reinstate all who were denied access based on proof of vaccination,” the DOH said.


The Special Olympics said it had lifted its requirement to show proof of vaccination, and DeSantis confirmed that all athletes, vaccinated or not, would be allowed to compete in the games.

“Delegates who were registered for the games but unable to participate due to the prior vaccine requirement, now have the option to attend,” the organization said in a released statement.

“We don’t want to fight,” it said. “We want to play.”