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OPINION: Florida pandemic response is failing small businesses

A state response is necessary to protect small businesses from the effects of COVID-19 before an imminent increase in the number of job applicants. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/PIXABAY

Florida businesses will begin to rack up fines Thursday for requiring proof of vaccinations from customers. This move, compounded with the loss of certain unemployment benefits a few weeks ago, means Florida citizens will be forced back to working in potentially unsafe conditions. 

The state must retract the fine and promote vaccinations to maintain the safety of small businesses.

Unemployment benefits ended for around 200,000 Floridians on Sept. 6, meaning many citizens will be looking for jobs. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ $5,000 fine on businesses that require proof of vaccination from customers and employees will be enforced Sept. 16.

The fine will be imposed on any business that requires patrons or customers “to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery,” according to SB 2006.

The majority of small businesses felt connected to the community during the pandemic in March 2020, as reported by the Harris Poll, a research and analytics company that gathers public opinion information. The poll showed 75%, or 232 of 310, U.S. small business owners felt a responsibility to serve customers. 

Without the opportunity to encourage safe practices in their facilities by ensuring the vaccination status of customers, staff and fellow customers are put at risk of contracting the virus. This could further the effects of the delta variant through the close-knit connections of the business within the community.

In 2020, the lack of COVID-19 regulations on businesses in Florida directly led to a spike in cases. On Sept. 25, 2020, DeSantis signed Executive Order 20-244, effectively removing all COVID-19 business restrictions. On the same day, The New York Times reported 2,847 new cases in Florida. After a steady rise in cases, Florida reached 15,930 new cases on Jan. 8. This increase could occur again if businesses don’t have more control over who comes and goes in their establishments. 

Recent job growth data from the U.S. Department of Labor has shown a drop in jobs in the month of August, likely due to a concern about the infectivity of the delta variant of COVID-19. U.S. Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the August jobs report in a statement on the White House blog Sept. 3. 

“The number of jobs added in August came in below market expectations, in large part likely reflecting a resurgence of COVID,” said Rouse.

Despite citizens’ concerns pertaining to the new variant, an upcoming increase in individuals seeking employment can be expected. Floridians will no longer receive up to $275 per week through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and up to $875 per week through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

With a spike in job hunters likely due to the end of unemployment benefits on Labor Day, small businesses will have to hire new employees who will be left vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. DeSantis’ approval of the $5,000 fine either forces employees to blindly serve customers risking everyone’s health involved, or businesses face going bankrupt from continuous citations. 

The governor’s stance on vaccines is rooted in a hypocritical ideology. DeSantis has taken action to limit the power of small businesses in some situations, such as when businesses ask for proof of vaccination. However, he has also expressed support in the past for businesses to have the freedom to turn away customers of their choice.

In a June 4, 2018 Facebook post, DeSantis supported a local bakery in Colorado when it denied service to a same-sex couple. He directly opposed his own opinions on the obligation of small businesses to serve all members of the community.

Florida must acknowledge that an increase in job applicants is likely without unemployment benefits. While introducing new statewide unemployment benefits may not encourage a new wave of job applicants, a state response is necessary to help businesses and residents of Florida.

To address the vulnerability of small businesses, the state should take direct action to promote the well-being of its residents. The $5,000 fine against businesses that require proof of vaccination should be revoked so small businesses can continue to serve the public without risking shutting down due to high infection rates in the community or within the business itself.