Gov. DeSantis’ vow to block ‘vaccine passports’ in FL speaks to the anxieties of the GOP base

Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to block COVID vaccine passports during a news conference on March 29, 2021. From left: Reps. Lawrence McClure and Colleen Burton; House Speaker Chris Sprowls; and Sen. Aaron Bean. Credit: Michael Moline

Gov. Ron DeSantis may or may not enjoy the legal authority to ban COVID “vaccine passports” in Florida, but the issue allows him to position himself advantageously in yet another culture-war signifier of major concern to the Republican Party’s grass roots.

The governor issued a forceful denunciation of the idea on Monday during a news conference, vowing to issue an executive order to ban any such thing in Florida, and said he would ask the Legislature to act, as well, during its continuing regular session.

“No passports. No mandates,” he said during a news conference in the Capitol on Monday.

The remarks came amid support elsewhere for documents, possibly including smartphone apps, attesting that people have been vaccinated or tested negative for the coronavirus. For example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled an “Excelsior Pass” last week.

The Biden administration also is reportedly working with private companies to develop such a credential, which could enable access to air travel, for example.

Meanwhile, stalwarts of the right including Tucker Carlson, and Republican U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert and Matthew Cawthorn, who have dutifully followed former President Trump’s skepticism about the COVID threat, have attacked the proposed documents as a threat to personal privacy, according to a round-up in Slate.

Some, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, have denounced “Biden’s Mark of the Beast” — a reference to the Book of Revelations prophecy about the Antichrist requiring people to bear marks in order to buy and sell.

DeSantis hasn’t gone that far, but had previously signaled his opposition to the idea, arguing they would harm disadvantaged people. On Monday, he said he would issue an executive order this week but had not done so as of this writing.

And this push is very much in line with previous stands taken by the governor to appeal to the GOP base, including his opposition to “critical race theory,” Big Tech’s alleged censorship of conservatives, and Black Lives Matter, in advance of his reelection bid in 2022 and a possible presidential candidacy in 2024.

“It is completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to simply be able to participate in normal society,” DeSantis said.

“You want to go to a movie theater? You have to show that? No. You want to go to a game? No. You want to go to a theme park? No. We’re not supportive of that. I think its something that people have certain freedoms and individual liberties to make decisions for themselves,” he said.

“I also wonder, it’s like, OK, you’re going to do this and give all this information to some big corporation? You want the fox to guard the hen house? I mean, give me a break. I think this is something that has huge privacy implications.”

Dubious authority

The governor’s press office hasn’t responded yet to a request for details about his authority to ban vaccine passports, but DeSantis’ power to act under his own executive authority is dubious, according to Professor JoNel Newman, director of the Health Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law.

There’s ample precedent for requiring proof of vaccination for access to services — schools, for example, have long mandated that students prove they’ve been vaccinated against common childhood illnesses, she said in a telephone interview.

“That said, the governor certainly doesn’t have the authority to tell national or international airlines that they can’t use it,” Newman said. “The governor also doesn’t have the authority to override federal policy for any federal programs within the state.”

As for enforcing passport bans at private businesses, the governor’s authority gets “murky,” Newman said.

“The public health and safety regulations would usually trump that. Those are traditionally local. But then, we also have a marketplace free-choice question for completely privately owned businesses. Why would he have more authority than that than for no shirt, no shoes, no service, to quote an often-imposed rule in a private restaurant,” she said.

However, the Legislature would have the necessary authority, “because they are charged with public health and safety,” Newman said.

She argued it’s probably too soon to OK vaccine passports anyway — there’s too much we don’t know yet about their staying power, and they’ve received only emergency approval thus far. Additionally, not everyone who wants a shot has been able to get one, she said.

“He may have the executive authority to control state and local governments, but I don’t think it’s really time for the governments to be requiring proof of vaccinations anyway.”

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat from Orange County who sits on the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee, also doubts the governor’s authority and sees DeSantis’ position here as in line with his refusal to mandate mask-wearing and occasional failure to wear one himself.

“DeSantis should be encouraging vaccinations right now and getting vaccinated himself, not encouraging vaccine hesitancy,” Smith said. Signing a ban “would give people additional reasons to not want to get vaccinated,” he said.

DeSantis’ shot in the arm?

At 42, the governor was eligible as of Monday to take the shot and has said in the past that he would do so when eligible. But there’s been no word from the governor’s office about any plans to do so.

Smith can understand why business owners might want passports widely available to protect themselves and their customers — including theme parks, sports stadia, and the cruise ships that DeSantis has been insisting are safe to operate now.

“A lot of private businesses want that because they know it will make their customers more comfortable coming back to their businesses,” he said. “There’s a reason why our economy hasn’t fully rebounded — and it’s not because of, obviously, state government restrictions,” he said.

“Gov. DeSantis is trying to score cheap political points with the antivaxer crowd at the expense of public health,” Smith said.