State may investigate potential violators of DeSantis’ vaccine passport law, including NCH

Two Southwest Florida businesses are subject to complaints made to the state for potentially violating its vaccine passport law.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a COVID-19 vaccine law that bans vaccine passports. The state is investigating potential violators of that law and two of those are in Southwest Florida. One being NCH health care systems and the other being Big Arts on Sanibel.

Naples Community Hospital and Big Arts on Sanibel are under investigation by the Florida Department of Health, according to documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel. The two SWFL companies are among the 120 Florida businesses and governments that are currently under investigation by FDOH.

Lee Ellen Harder is the Executive Director for Big Arts. “I just was wondering why we’re on the list. Since we are not requiring vaccination,” Harder said.

Harder says vaccines are required for staff but not for patrons. So, when she found out Big Arts was on the list, she was shocked.

But, there is something that Harder said was important to clear up. “We’re not in that business of deciding you know, who should do what. We just want our patrons’ volunteers, staff, everybody to feel safe,” said Harder.

NCH is also on the list and it, too, mandates vaccines for staff. The hospital system recently let go of more than 100 staff members who refused to comply with the vaccine mandate.

Aubrey Jewett is a political scientist based out of the University of Central Florida. “We don’t know how this list was generated, like how do people and businesses end up on the list?” Jewett said.

The reason we don’t know is that the Department of Health will not say. Jewett says he’s closely followed the politics surrounding vaccines in Florida. It is vastly different from the politics of vaccines in Washington D.C.

“We’re definitely getting contradictory advice and rules from the federal government and from the state government,” Jewett said. “And so who gets caught in the middle are the businesses and people who live right here in Florida.”

If the state finds that a business or local government broke state law, it could impose a fine of $5,000 per violation.

For a small business such as Big Arts, that sort of punishment could really financially damage them.

NCH has not responded to specific questions from WINK News about the FDOH investigation. Instead, they sent us the statement below:

“NCH does not require proof of Covid-19 vaccine status for its patients or guests. NCH’s inclusion of Covid-19 vaccine as a condition of employment applies to NCH employees, contract staff and volunteers only, and complies fully with federal law.”

Since our story aired on Monday evening, NCH sent WINK News an email confirming they’ve received no formal communication from the FDOH.

Tuesday afternoon, NCH sent this statement as well:
 

“While NCH continues to wait for any official communication from the state regarding the issue of vaccine passports, we wanted to call the language of the state’s own law to the attention of media. In section 381.00316, Florida Statutes, (http://laws.flrules.org/2021/8, section 18, page 22-23) it clearly states in subsection (1) that “a business entity…may not require patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business operations in this state.”  And while NCH’s vaccine requirement is only for employees, contractors, and volunteers of NCH and we have NEVER required our patients or visitors to show evidence of vaccination, sub section (5) of that same statute clearly says “this section does not apply to a healthcare provider…” which, in addition to not having received any official notification from the state on this issue, is another reason we find this matter puzzling. We will continue to keep media updated if and when we receive any official notification from the state on this matter.

 

— Matthew Heinle, NCH General Counsel.

Additionally, media outlets across the state reported in late spring of 2021 on the carve-out of this law that state legislators extended to hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers.

MORE: Health care industry gets a pass on vaccine ‘passports’

Health care industry exempt from DeSantis ‘vaccination passport’ ban

Since our story aired, the Governor’s office has also contacted WINK News and said:

“entities on this list are not all under formal investigation, and merely being named on the list is not confirmation of probable cause that an entity may have violated the law.”

According to the governor’s office, anyone can submit a complaint if they believe there may be a violation, whether or not a violation occurred. The Florida Department of Health does review every complaint, but it’s possible that some complaints may not warrant a full investigation. Enforcement action would take place only after an investigation has determined that the entity violated the law, as in the case of Leon County today.

Reporter:Sydney Persing
Writer:Drew Hill
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