State fines Leon County $3.5M over vaccination requirement

The Florida Department of Health is imposing a $3.57 million fine on Leon County because of the county government’s requirement that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The department sent a notice Tuesday to Leon County Administrator Vince Long that gave the county 30 days to pay the fine. The notice pointed to a state ban on requiring documentation of vaccination --- an issue that has become known as requiring "vaccine passports."

"This fine has been assessed for 714 instances of violating Florida's ban on vaccine passports. Leon County government (ultimately) fired 14 employees," a statement from the health department said.

Long responded by saying the county will seek legal recourse.

"By way of media reports, Leon County was made aware of a notice from the Florida Department of Health regarding the county’s vaccination requirement. There is a genuine disagreement about the applicability of the (state vaccine passport) statute and rule, and the county will enforce its rights using any remedies available at law, if necessary," Long said in a statement.

RELATED: State of Florida investigating local governments, businesses for violating 'vaccine passport' ban

Leon County’s hefty penalty is the latest effort by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to prohibit vaccine requirements on employees.

The health department said the vaccine-passport law, signed by DeSantis in May, "specifically bans governmental entities in Florida from requiring any person, including an employee, to provide proof of vaccination or post-infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from their operations."

The law allows for a $5,000 fine to be imposed for each violation. The Department of Health notice said Leon County required 714 employees or former employees to provide documentation that they had been vaccinated.

"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. Governor DeSantis will continue fighting for Floridians’ rights and the Florida Department of Health will continue to enforce the law," DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in a statement Tuesday.

Long advised employees on July 28 that they would be given until Oct. 1 to provide proof of being fully vaccinated, or risk facing termination.

"This is very simple and very serious. As an employer, we are required to provide a safe work environment for employees, and unvaccinated employees pose a significant risk to spread the virus," Long said in a memo announcing the requirement.

Long thanked the vast majority of the county’s employees for complying with the mandate in an Oct. 2 statement.

"Following extensive employee outreach and a federally required process for medical and religious accommodations, more than 98% of all county employees received a vaccination or accommodation and less than 2% chose not to submit proof of vaccination," Long wrote. "Specifically, 700 county employees chose to be vaccinated, 30 employees received an accommodation, and 14 did not submit proof of vaccination and were terminated at the end of day on Friday, October 1."

DeSantis touted the penalty in a tweet Tuesday.

"We must protect the jobs of Floridians and preserve the ability of Floridians to make their own decisions regarding what shots to take," the governor wrote.

RELATED: State targets 8 school districts over mask requirements; Hillsborough, Sarasota off the hook

The fine drew criticism from state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2022 and frequently locks horns with DeSantis on COVID-19 issues. She alluded to financial penalties the state has pursued against school districts that require students to wear masks.

"Not content with defunding schools, @GovRonDeSantis is now trying to defund county governments for protecting their employees from COVID-19. Wannabe dictator," Fried wrote in a tweet Tuesday.

Some other local governments have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for employees.

For example, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings announced in July that county employees would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The health department Tuesday afternoon didn’t immediately answer an email from The News Service of Florida about whether Orange County would face a fine.

However, the state health agency said in its statement that other local governments had "reversed course" on vaccination requirements.

"Last week, after alerting the city of Gainesville of their possible violation of the vaccination passport ban in Florida, the Florida Department of Health received a response indicating the city of Gainesville rescinded its employee vaccine mandate," the statement said.