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John’s Island reaches compromise with state on vaccine

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of October 28, 2021)

John’s Island members were prepared to challenge allegations that their club had violated a recently enacted state law prohibiting private businesses, schools and other organizations from imposing vaccine requirements, but attorneys for both sides avoided such a confrontation by negotiating a compromise.

According to a well-placed source with knowledge of the situation, Florida Department of Health officials agreed to discontinue their investigation into the alleged violations, accepting John’s Island’s argument that the club is exempt from the ban because the members own it.

“We’re not patrons, or customers, or employees,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We’re equity members of the club, and we believe the members who own the club have the right to do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves.”

In return, John’s Island agreed to back off its mandate that all club staffers be fully vaccinated – a requirement that took effect Oct. 15 – and is now allowing employees to work on the premises as long as they undergo regular COVID-19 testing.

Employees with legitimate medical issues also may opt out of the club’s vaccination requirement.

The source said he wasn’t sure how the compromise would impact guests, who previously were required to be vaccinated to enter the property, but John’s Island’s “vertical membership” included immediate family members as club members.

Reached via text message last week, John’s Island General Manager Brian Kroh declined to confirm the resolution or comment on the matter.

State Health Department officials did not respond to a phone message or an email sent to the agency’s communications staff.

The source said John’s Island was prepared to go to court to contest any penalties imposed by the state, which, under the so-called vaccine-passport law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May, carries fines of $5,000 per violation.

“We have infinite resources,” the source said. “We were not going to roll over. We were prepared to defend our rights.”

The law is so poorly written that its legality ultimately will be decided by Florida’s courts, which have issued mixed rulings when school districts challenged the DeSantis-endorsed, Health Department ban against mask mandates in public schools, the source said.

Also, the source said, it would be politically unwise for DeSantis to engage in a high-profile battle with John’s Island, which is heavily populated with affluent Republican donors.

DeSantis is seeking re-election as governor next year, and his name is among those mentioned as a potential candidate for president in 2024.

During a press conference last week, DeSantis announced that he planned to call for a special session to ask the Florida Legislature to bolster statewide prohibitions on vaccine mandates and support his efforts to undermine federal requirements that employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The vaccine requirement at John’s Island hasn’t been an issue, the source said, adding that many of the club’s members are “older” and continue to take precautions to protect themselves from COVID infection.

As for the club resolving its differences with the state, the source said, “We don’t want the public to think John’s Island has connections and can get away with things. We weren’t trying to get away with anything.

“We disagreed with the allegations, and we came up with a compromise.”

The state’s list of 100-plus alleged violators of the vaccine-passport ban included St. Edward’s School, but school spokesperson Monica Jennings said the Health Department was mistaken.

“We never had a vaccine mandate and don’t plan to,” Jennings said. “We don’t know how we got on the list, because it was never even a discussion.”