Cops, firefighters challenge Gainesville's 'odious' vaccine mandate

A nurse immuniser administers the AstraZeneca vaccine to a patient at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Sydney, Australia, August 25, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
  • Many employees of the Florida city including cops and firefighters say they will quit rather than be vaccinated
  • They say vaccine won't slow COVID spread

(Reuters) - More than 200 employees of Gainesville, Florida, have filed a lawsuit seeking to strike down the city's requirement that its workers receive COVID-19 vaccines or be fired, saying it violates their constitutional rights.

The workers, represented by Seldon Childers of ChildersLaw, filed a complaint in state court on Thursday claiming that various less-intrusive alternatives to vaccinations exist, and that many city employees will simply quit or retire rather than be forced to get a vaccine.

The Gainesville City Commission adopted the mandate on Aug. 5 requiring city employees and contractors to receive vaccines by Oct. 14 or face termination.

But many of the plaintiffs have "durable and robust natural immunities" because they have already contracted COVID, according to the complaint, and masks and antibody treatments may be just as effective as vaccines at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

"In its mad rush to solve an intractable problem not of the Plaintiffs’ making, the City has conceived an odious scheme to coerce the Plaintiffs into taking unwanted and unnecessary COVID vaccines by threatening their livelihoods, pensions and dreams," Childers wrote in the complaint.

The plaintiffs say the mandate violates their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and privacy and bodily integrity.

Shelby Taylor, a spokeswoman for the city, said workers' health and safety was the city's top priority.

"The City has taken the steps necessary to achieve that priority and stand by that decision," Taylor said.

Several U.S. cities and states have said they will require public workers to become vaccinated, including Chicago, San Diego, New York City and California, amid a surge in COVID cases and the recent approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Thursday's lawsuit appears to be the first to challenge one of those mandates.

The plaintiffs said requiring workers to get vaccines is unnecessary and not rationally related to the mandate's purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Because the vaccines do not prevent transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant, vaccinating workers is not likely to reduce secondary infections, they said.

And by mandating vaccines, the city is risking "catastrophic collapse" if a large number of employees quit or are fired, the plaintiffs said.

The city agency that operates public utilities, for example, already had 10% fewer employees than needed as of late July, according to the complaint. And in a recent internal survey, nearly 60% of the agency's 150 employees said they would quit, retire, or accept termination if they were required to become vaccinated, the plaintiffs said.

In addition to the constitutional claims, the plaintiffs said the mandate violates a Florida law barring government entities from requiring individuals to prove that they received COVID-19 vaccines "to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the governmental entity’s operations in this state."

The case is Friend v. City of Gainesville, Florida Circuit Court, Alachua County, No. 133500511.

For the plaintiffs: Seldon Childers of Childers Law

For the city: Not available

Read more:

New York City, California order government workers to get COVID vaccine

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine gains full U.S. regulatory approval

New York City mandates COVID-19 vaccine for teachers in largest U.S. school district

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.