He says his state may pay the fines of businesses that snub the federal vaccine mandate — and he’ll do it with coronavirus relief aid signed into law by Biden.
As Florida Republicans, driven by Gov. Ron DeSantis, raise their battle against President Joe Biden’s Covid antibody order, they are trying another strategy to help resisters: giving taxpayer money to the unvaccinated. Florida is one of a handful of states that presently guarantees individuals who reject the shot stay qualified for unemployment benefits in case they lose their employment over their stance. Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee — all governed by Republicans — have done the same. And DeSantis, one of the main Republican voices against federal vaccine requirements, needs to go even further.
“This is an important fight,” DeSantis recently told business leaders. “And it’s a fight we’re happy to join.”
It was only a few months ago that a majority of Americans lived in a state that offered people cash or other freebies if they got vaccinated against the coronavirus. Democratic and Republican governors in more than a dozen states launched lotteries, promising the newly vaccinated a chance at a prize of $1 million and sometimes more.
But the push by DeSantis to use taxpayer money to compensate people who defy vaccine mandates is the latest example of the fast-changing politics around vaccines and it could become a template for other Republican leaders looking to align themselves with an increasingly vocal minority of Americans refusing to get the shot. DeSantis, a potential 2024 contender and one of his party’s most popular figures, has often set the tone for other Republican governors in responding to the pandemic and pushing back against the Biden administration.
If more states follow, it could dull Biden’s sharpest tool — the threat of lost income — in his push to encourage vaccinations. The growing resistance has created more uncertainty about America’s response to the pandemic amid a winter surge causing another wave of hospitalizations in the north and mountain west. Meanwhile, a new coronavirus variant, Omicron, has entered the US, officials confirmed Wednesday, rattling markets and leaders.
Crystal Watson, a professor of public health risk assessment at Johns Hopkins University, worries these states are giving people a reason not to get vaccines and creating a safe haven for the virus at a time when the United States should be turning the corner against the pandemic.
“The longer we have high levels of circulation in our communities, the more variants that are worrisome we’ll see,” said Crystal Watson, a professor of public health risk assessment at Johns Hopkins University. “From a scientific perspective, from a public health perspective, creating support for people who won’t get vaccinated, that’s really damaging.”
‘You should be incentivizing people to make good decisions’
Amid Florida’s fast-moving special session on vaccine mandates last month, some Democrats took issue with lawmakers carving out benefits for the unvaccinated. They noted that five months prior, DeSantis, like many Republican leaders, had cut off emergency aid to the unemployed in an effort to jump start the job market. State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, offered an amendment that would ensure unemployment benefits would go to workers who felt unsafe at work and left a job because their employer wasn’t requiring vaccines. In the Republican-dominated legislature, her amendment was ruled out of order.
“They didn’t even want to hear it,” Eskamani said. “These are the same Republicans who say they want small government and let people decide for themselves. But not only are you incentivizing policies that are anti-public health, but you’re rewarding them for it. You should be incentivizing people to make good decisions.” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said it’s wrong to characterize Florida’s new unemployment law as a taxpayer-funded incentive for the unvaccinated. She said the bill was clarifying what is already the law in Florida, which states an employee is eligible for unemployment benefits if they are fired as a result of an unlawful policy. DeSantis signed a bill that outlawed strict vaccine mandates.
“Most people would rather keep their jobs and regular incomes, and that was always the objective of the special session,” Pushaw said. “I can’t imagine anyone wants to be fired over a personal medical decision to receive unemployment assistance that is generally less than their former income.” The Biden administration declined to comment. Watson, the Johns Hopkins professor, said these new laws were “very contradictory to the messaging public health is putting out, which is based on science and evidence.”
“It’s really dangerous from that perspective,” Watson said.
After signing Iowa’s bill, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement that it was a matter of ensuring health decisions remain personal.
“I believe the vaccine is the best defense against COVID-19 and we’ve provided Iowans with the information they need to determine what’s best for themselves and their families,” Reynolds said, “but no Iowan should be forced to lose their job or livelihood over the COVID-19 vaccine.” Carrots vs. sticks
Several studies found state lotteries made little difference in the push against vaccine hesitancy. By October, faced with stagnating vaccination rates, the Biden administration moved on from carrots to sticks.
Biden bet most businesses would put in place vaccine mandates for their workers if threatened by fines by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Employees, it was believed, would ultimately choose a safe, effective vaccine over losing their jobs. In some parts of the country, the idea has worked as planned. More than 92% of the federal workforce has received at least one dose of the vaccine after Biden made immunization a condition of employment, the Office of Management and Budget said late last month. Many cities, including New York, have credited vaccine mandates for a sharp rise in inoculation among public employees.
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