The Special Olympics has dropped its COVID-19 vaccine requirement ahead of its games in Orlando, Florida, after the state sent a letter to the organization threatening to fine it $27.5 million for violating state law.
On Friday, the Special Olympics announced that athletes and other participants would no longer have to show proof of COVID-19 vaccine “as demanded by the state of Florida officials on May 27, based upon the Florida Department of Health’s interpretation of Florida law.”
“Delegates who were registered for the Games but were unable to participate due to the prior vaccine requirement, now have the option to attend,” the organization said in a press release.
“We look forward to welcoming thousands of Special Olympics athletes, families, and fans to an extraordinary 2022 USA Games,” Special Olympics added.
Florida’s Department of Health had sent a letter to the group on Thursday notifying them that the rule ran afoul of the Sunshine State’s laws.
“This letter is notice that the Special Olympics International is assessed a $27.5 million fine for 5,500 violations of Section 381.00316 (1), Florida Statutes, after the Department of Health made repeated attempted to avoid imposing fines against this charitable organization to ensure the 2022 USA Special Olympics could be held in Florida without requiring proof of vaccination from delegates,” the letter said.
The letter also noted that Florida law “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.”
On Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) praised the decision as well as the athletes who participate in the games.
“I can tell you the heart and the determination you see from our Special Olympians is remarkable,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “And they’re able to do things that, quite frankly, I don’t think that I would be able to do under those circumstances and so, they really should be admired and commended. And so, this is something that I think is really meaningful for people throughout the state of Florida.”
For varying reasons, including medical concerns, not all Special Olympians can receive the COVID-19 vaccine, or even want it in the first place. Now, those who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 will be allowed to compete in the games, which start on Sunday, June 5.
“This is a really significant event for these athletes and you know, in Florida, we want all of them to be able to compete,” DeSantis said. “We do not think it’s fair, or just, to be marginalizing some of these athletes based on a decision that has no bearing on their ability to compete with honor and integrity.”
“And so this was important that we engaged in this. I wish it did not have to come to this,” he added.
DeSantis also blasted the Special Olympics leaders for an “exclusionary policy.”
“When you talk about a policy and you talk about an organization, who on their website promotes inclusion, to then have an exclusionary policy,” Desantis said. “It’s contradictory, it’s hypocritical, and it doesn’t have the best interest of our athletes at the forefront.”
Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis also expressed her gratitude that more athletes will now be able to play.
“This is what standing up for your rights is all about – Isabella will now be able to compete in the Special Olympics because @GovRonDeSantis fought their vaccine mandate (which is illegal in FL) and won,” the mother of three and cancer survivor said on Friday. “Isabella’s smile says everything,” she said in regard to one athlete who joined the governor at the press conference.
This is what standing up for your rights is all about – Isabella will now be able to compete in the Special Olympics because @GovRonDeSantis fought their vaccine mandate (which is illegal in FL) and won.
Isabella’s smile says everything. pic.twitter.com/PkGUL3BQi9
— Casey DeSantis (@CaseyDeSantis) June 3, 2022
The Special Olympics began in 1968 with the mission “to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.” The group has helped more than five million athletes from around the world in 172 different countries.