DeSantis rips idea of 'COVID-19 passports'

Gov. Ron DeSantis has emphatically resisted placing restrictions on businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But DeSantis this week suggested he may go after companies if they require customers to show proof that they are vaccinated, saying "it’s more than just a private decision."   

The governor was referring to what have been called COVID-19 passports, a phenomenon gathering momentum abroad. 

"It’s a very, very bad idea," DeSantis said of requiring COVID-19 passports. "Look, if you want to go to a movie theater or a concert or all this stuff, go. If you don’t, don’t. But, to require someone to show some type of proof of vaccination is completely unacceptable. It’s not something we are going to support here in any way."

DeSantis first broached the topic during an hour-long public health roundtable, where he met with four scientists who have denounced lockdowns and school closures as a way to prevent the spread of the deadly virus that causes COVID-19. DeSantis has repeatedly gone on Fox News in recent weeks to tout Florida’s response to COVID-19 and criticize other states run by Democratic governors.

As more people get vaccinated in the hopes of returning to a pre-COVID-19 existence, including traveling, debate has emerged about  whether countries should require COVID-19 passports as a way to create a pathway.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, airline trade organizations and airline labor unions sent a letter to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 Response Team coordinator, Jeff Zients, last week asking that the United States set some kind of standards for traveling.

The European Union announced this week that it intends to use a "Digital Green Certificate" that will allow European Union citizens to freely travel across member nations. The certificates will prove that people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, have already recovered from the virus or have tested negative. The goal is for the Digital Green Certificates to be in play by summer.

European Union member states that restrict travelers with green certificates would be required to notify the EU Commission and all member states and justify the decisions.

In Israel, people who are  vaccinated or who already have been infected by COVID-19 can get a "green pass" from the Health Ministry. The app allows them to access to gyms, theaters and clubs.

DeSantis made clear Thursday he has no intention of following Europe or Israel’s lead.

"We are definitely not going to require anything, from the state’s perspective. That is totally off the table," DeSantis said. "If I have businesses that want to do that in Florida, I think that is more than just a private decision. I think that impacts our society. That impacts people, particularly disadvantaged people, in a way that would really be negative for our state."

While the concept of the "passport" comes during the COVID-19 pandemic, it wouldn’t be the first time people have been asked to show proof of immunization, said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health, medicine and pharmacy and senior associate dean at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine

"When measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough and polio were rampant, they would wipe out entire communities," Wolfson said. "So when we developed  vaccines for them over the course of the last several decades, most school districts in the country required that students and their families demonstrate that their children had been vaccinated for those horrible diseases. And that even holds true for most universities now."

DeSantis made his comments at an event in the Capitol building, which has been mostly closed to the public during the Legislature’s annual 60-day session.

Lawmakers and their spouses must be tested for COVID-19 before being allowed entrance to the building, as are reporters. The Senate is not authorizing lobbyists or members of the public to enter the building, requiring them to offer testimony on bills from a remote location. The House allows lobbyists in but on a limited basis.

Wolfson said it is unlikely that Florida businesses would require patrons to show proof of vaccination or negative tests. He said proprietors are unlikely to embrace something that could drive off customers.

Even if they did, though, Wolfson said enforcing the policy would be a challenge.

"The governor has made it clear he will nullify any policies that punish patrons for not following masks or distancing," Wolfson said.  

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, have mixed sentiments about whether businesses should be able to require COVID-19 vaccinations.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, predicted that the majority of Florida residents who want to be vaccinated will be by June and that COVID-19 vaccine passports shouldn’t be an issue.

But when pressed as to whether private businesses should be able to require customers to have COVID-19 passports or be able to ban unvaccinated customers from entering, Simpson saw things differently from the governor.

"On the surface I would say ‘yes’ because  they are a private business. They can do what they want," the Senate president said. "But, clearly, they will bear the responsibility of that decision."

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said requiring passports isn’t necessary.

"That’s totally and wholly unreasonable based on what’s happening out there in the world. I  think that businesses have required a number of things that comply with CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. I don’t believe that is something that the CDC is even calling for," Sprowls said. "I have not had a single business owner who has reached out to me and said we are in dire need of doing a COVID-19 vaccine passport."