Breaking: Florida Business Owners Look to State for Help as Biden Vax Mandate Threatens to Exacerbate Labor Shortage

Like many restauranters across the country, John Horne has struggled to staff his four Anna Maria Oyster Bars on Florida's Gulf Coast since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

He knows a lot of job hunters are now avoiding the service industry. One of his restaurants recently went three months without an applicant, he said.

Horne fears that if President Joe Biden's federal vaccine mandate ever goes into full effect — it's blocked for now by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which described it as a "one-size-fits-all sledgehammer" — he could be forced to terminate up to 40 percent of his 300 or so remaining workers, people he considers family. Filling those jobs with vaccinated workers would be hard.

"Some of them have been with me forever," Horne said. "So then, I've got to let them go?"

Horne said his business would be crippled. He would likely be forced to eliminate shifts, cut business hours, and maybe even shutter operations a couple of days a week, he said.

That's why Horne said he appreciates that the Florida legislature and Governor Ron DeSantis "are trying to step between us and the federal government."

On Wednesday, the state legislature passed a series of bills designed to blunt Biden's mandate, which would apply to any business with at least 100 employees, and would require them to ensure that all of their employees are either fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or test negative for the virus at least once a week.

The new legislation doesn't prohibit private businesses from mandating vaccines for their workers, but one of the bills adds additional Florida-only exemptions business owners would be required to honor, or face fines of $10,000 or $50,000 depending on the size of the business.

The federal mandate, which will be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration if it's okayed by the courts, has religious and medical exemptions. But Florida will have additional opt-outs, applying to employees who can demonstrate that they already have "COVID-19 immunity," who have an "anticipated pregnancy," or who agree "to use employer-provided personal protective equipment when in the presence of other employees or other persons."

The bill also codifies DeSantis's emergency order prohibiting school mask and vaccine mandates, and it prohibits governments around the state from instituting vaccine mandates on their own employees. The other bills passed on Wednesday shield employee complaints about their vaccine exemptions from the public, lay the groundwork for the state to develop its own version of OSHA, and remove the power of the state surgeon general to order vaccinations during a declared public-health emergency.

DeSantis has said his intent is to protect the ability of workers to choose if they want to get vaccinated or not. "We have got to stand up for people and protect their jobs and protect their livelihoods," he said at a rally earlier this month, according to local news reports.

But the Florida-only exemptions could create a legal pickle for business owners such as Horne, who will be required by the state to honor opt-outs not recognized by the federal government, with the threat of significant fines coming from both sides.

"Then it's like, which side do you take?" Horne said. "Do I take the federal, or do I take the state? The state's going to fine me if I do, and the federal is going to fine me if I don't, or vice versa. Businesses are in a very tough situation with this."

Florida is one of more than two dozen states suing to stop the mandate. Prior to this week's special session, Florida business leaders urged lawmakers not to impose new requirements or restrictions that would make them less competitive.

"Many Florida Chamber (of Commerce) members remain frustrated by the federal government's insistence to dictate decisions best left to the private sector," Mark Wilson, executive director of the Florida chamber, said in a prepared statement. "In the free market, consumers, employees, and employers are in the best position to make these choices for themselves without any government intervention."

For his part, DeSantis has said he would use federal stimulus dollars to pay federal penalties imposed on Florida businesses. "My view would be, 'Don't comply,'" DeSantis told a group of independent business leaders at a dinner this week, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Jeff Borysiewicz, the owner of Corona Cigar Co. in Orlando, shares DeSantis's view. He said he has no intention of complying with the federal mandate, even if it clears the courts. "We're going to fight as much as we can," said Borysiewicz, who has about 135 employees.

"I don't care if there's fines or not. I'm not doing it," he said. "I'm not God. I don't own the employees. They have their right and their freedom to make their own decision."

Borysiewicz said he doesn't consider himself an anti-vaxxer generally, but he has concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines because they were developed and released in less than a year. He said he knows people who had negative reactions after receiving a vaccine.

He called Biden's vaccine mandate an example of "medical tyranny," and he supports DeSantis's efforts to push back on it.

If the federal vaccine mandate goes into effect, peaceful protesters could unleash havoc nationwide, Borysiewicz said. The federal government, he said, is "trying to play chicken with the people."

"The power is with the people. It's not with the government," Borysiewicz said. "All it takes is 20 percent of the people to stand up to this, and the entire society — our supply chain, you think is tight now — it can collapse like a house of cards."

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Florida Business Owners Look to State for Help as Biden Vax Mandate Threatens to Exacerbate Labor Shortage

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