Court halts Gainesville’s vaccine mandate

An Alachua County judge has issued an emergency injunction barring Gainesville from enforcing its vaccine mandate for employees and contractors.

Judge Monica Brasington of Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit issued an order Wednesday afternoon that prevents the city from carrying through with its requirements that all city employees and contractors be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31.

Brasington heard arguments about the injunction Monday from city attorneys and from Jeff Childers, an attorney who is representing more than 200 employees in a lawsuit against the city over the mandate.

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Childers argued Monday that because the mandate involves a medical treatment, the right to privacy, as outlined in the Florida Constitution, applies to the mandate.

Judge Monica Brasington

Brasington agreed, writing that the court “has determined that the challenged policy invades and/or implicates the plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected right to privacy.”

Because the mandate involved a citizen’s right to privacy—which Brasington said is stronger under the Florida Constitution than under the federal Constitution—the vaccine policy was subject to strict scrutiny versus the usual four-part test for an injunction.

Strict scrutiny is the highest standard of judicial review that can apply to a law and involves the government proving that a law serves “a compelling public interest” and that the law is narrowly tailored enough to meet that public interest.

During the hearing, Childers called one witness—plaintiff Christine Damm, a 10-year employee of the city utility’s GRUCom division—and presented previous case law related to medical treatment, the right to privacy and strict scrutiny.

The city, however, called no witnesses and only presented arguments related to the injunction and not to the right to privacy or strict scrutiny. A fact that Brasington noted in the hearing and on Wednesday in issuing her order.

“The City did not put on any evidence, at all, at the injunction hearing [emphasis in the original],” Brasington wrote. “Without any evidence, the Court is unable to consider whether the Vaccine Mandate serves a compelling interest through the least restrictive means…The City did not file any affidavits or declarations, did not submit any documentary evidence, and did not call any witnesses.”

Brasington, who has her law degree from UF and was appointed to the bench in 2013 by then-Gov. Rick Scott, ordered the city not to enforce its vaccine mandate and not to discipline or terminate any employees for failing to get a vaccine. 

Plaintiff’s attorney Childers cheered Wednesday’s decision.

“The court agreed that the City doesn’t own its employees’ bodies,” Childers wrote in a text to Mainstreet Daily News

The city commission voted 4-3 at its Aug. 5 meeting to require employees get vaccinated and at a later meeting, extended the deadline for that requirement to Oct. 31 and added people who perform contract work for the city to the mandate.

While the order bars the city from making the vaccine a condition of continued employment, a spokesperson said Wednesday that Gainesville will continue its efforts to get its employees to voluntarily vaccinate.

“Given the court’s ruling, we will continue our efforts to improve vaccination rates among our workforce through education and incentives,” Rossana Passaniti, a public information officer for the city, said in an email to Mainstreet Daily News. “We recognize the reality of vaccine hesitancy and vaccine disinformation but agree with public health experts that vaccination is key in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

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