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The USA Special Olympics lifted its COVID-19 vaccine requirement for athletes on June 2 after the state of Florida threatened to fine the organization $27.5 million for a violation of state law, according to a letter obtained by ABC News reporter Jay O’Brien.
The Florida Department of Health argued that state law prohibited the organization from barring unvaccinated athletes from competing in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando this weekend. The department planned to assess 5,500 fines of $5,000 unless the Special Olympics pulled its vaccine mandate, per the letter.
"SOI was unable to bring the event into compliance for the benefit of their delegates, and reinstate all who were denied access based on proof of vaccination. Section 381.00316(1), Florida Statutes, prohibits a business entity, which includes a charitable organization, from requiring any patron or customer to provide documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business entity.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been a staunch opponent of virtually every COVID-19 restriction since the virus surfaced in early 2020, applauded the Special Olympics' decision to reverse its vaccine mandate on Friday.
"Finally, we can report that all the athletes will be allowed to compete regardless of vaccination status," he said at a news conference. "This will be a relief to a lot of athletes."
DeSantis was named an honorary co-chair of the 2022 Special Olympics last year.
This isn't the first time DeSantis has strong-armed an organization because of differing opinions. He recently blocked $35 million in state funding for a new Tampa Bay Rays training facility after the team spoke out against gun violence this week. DeSantis also changed Disney's special governing status in Florida because the company publicly opposed a state law that banned classrooms from teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity.