TALLAHASSEE --- Dwindling coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Florida aren’t slowing down Gov. Ron DeSantis’ slugfest with President Joe Biden’s administration over how to handle mitigation of COVID-19.

As he seeks re-election in 2022 and is regarded as a top GOP contender in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, DeSantis is hammering away at mandates imposed at the federal and local levels.

DeSantis’ administration is sending Leon County a $3.57 million bill as punishment for the county government’s requirement that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The state Department of Health on Tuesday sent a notice to Leon County Administrator Vince Long that gave the county 30 days to pay the fine.

The health department’s notice pointed to a state ban on requiring documentation of vaccination --- an issue that has become known as requiring “vaccine passports.”

The notice said that, under a bill signed by DeSantis in May, governmental entities are prohibited from requiring anyone “including an employee, to provide proof of vaccination or post-infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from their operations.”

The health department accused Leon County of racking up 714 violations --- which carry a maximum penalty of $5,000 a pop --- by requiring its entire government workforce to get the jabs. The 14 employees who refused the shots were fired, Long said in an Oct. 2 memo.

Long, who said he first learned about the hefty penalty headed his way from news reports, argued that Leon County holds a different interpretation of the law. And he pledged that the county will seek legal recourse.

“There is a genuine disagreement about the applicability of the (state vaccine passport) statute and rule, and the county will enforce its rights using any remedies available at law, if necessary,” Long said in a statement Tuesday.

Meanwhile, DeSantis vowed Thursday to go to court over a soon-to-be-released federal rule that would require workers at businesses with 100 or more employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We are going to contest that immediately,” DeSantis said of the rule, which is being developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “We think the state of Florida has standing to do it, and we also know businesses that we’re going to work with to contest it.”

But Biden on Thursday said more needs to be done to vaccinate people and that businesses are increasingly requiring their employees to get the immunizations.

“Let’s be clear: Vaccination requirements should not be another issue that divides us,” Biden said, according to a transcript released by the White House.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Black farmers will soon be able to vie for a medical marijuana license in Florida, after enduring years of sitting on the sidelines while the state’s cannabis industry soared.

DeSantis’ administration on Thursday rolled out a process for Black farmers with ties to Florida to compete for a designated license to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana. It has not yet been determined when applications for the single license will begin to be accepted.

The rule came more than four years after the Florida Legislature set up a framework for the state’s medical marijuana industry.

Part of the 2017 law required health officials to grant a license to “one applicant that is a recognized class member” in decades-old litigation, known as the “Pigford” cases, which addressed racial discrimination against Black farmers by federal officials.

Florida has 22 licensed medical marijuana operators and, under the law, health officials are required to issue 19 more licenses, including the Black farmer license.

The DeSantis administration put the licensing and rulemaking processes on hold while awaiting the outcome of a Florida Supreme Court ruling in a key lawsuit challenging part of the 2017 law that requires operators to conduct all aspects of the marijuana business --- growing, processing and dispensing --- rather than allowing companies to handle individual components of the marijuana trade.

The court in May upheld the law, which was designed to carry out a 2016 constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana. Lawmakers in 2014 had approved limited use of non-euphoric cannabis.

Now that the DeSantis administration is moving ahead with the licensing process, health officials have put the Black farmer application at the top of the line.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has pushed state health officials to move forward with the license.

Rouson, who is Black, told the News Service on Thursday that he hadn’t fully scrutinized the application but that it appeared to have a “short application period and a pretty hefty non-refundable” application fee of $140,000.

“But I’m glad it’s out,” he said, adding “I’m reminded still that it took a long time to get to this point, and we don’t need a long time in awarding a license.”

DOUBLING UP

State health officials' actions this week also provide a glimpse into how they will likely handle an upcoming batch of applications, which will almost double the number of the state’s cannabis operators.

In addition to requiring the Black farmer license, the 2017 law set up a schedule for new licenses to come online as the number of patients increases. The number of patients has skyrocketed to more than 600,000 since the amendment was approved five years ago.

The state Office of Medical Marijuana Use is asking lawmakers for nearly $13 million to hire 85 full-time employees --- more than doubling its workforce --- and to expand operations to cope with an expected 150 applications for the 19 new licenses.

Health officials also want $4 million for a state education and prevention campaign to publicize “accurate information” about medical marijuana, money to buy vehicles to transport samples of THC-infused edible products to a testing lab in Jacksonville and additional funds to open three regional offices within the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, according to documents submitted to the Legislature.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Department of Health is imposing a $3.57 million fine on Leon County because of the county government’s requirement that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, marking the latest effort by DeSantis’ administration to prohibit “vaccine passports.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Unless the Sunshine Law says that you have to have something out in the open, I've learned that in this building, people will keep it in the shadows as long as humanly possible.” --- House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, referring to transparency in the state’s redistricting process.