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Special Olympics drops vaccine mandate after Florida threatens $27.5 million fine

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The Special Olympics on Thursday reversed its vaccine requirement for upcoming games in Orlando, Florida, this weekend after receiving pressure from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration.

ABC News reporter Jay O'Brien revealed Friday that the state of Florida threatened the Special Olympics with a $27.5 million fine because it said the organization's vaccine requirement violated state law.

O'Brien shared a letter the Florida Department of Health sent to the Special Olympics International on June 2 giving notice of the fine. The Special Olympics "required proof certifying COVID-19 vaccination from 5,500 individuals to gain access to entry upon, and/or services from the 2022 USA Special Olympics Games, in violation of Florida law," the letter stated.

DOH said 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." The state government imposed a fine of $5,000 against the Special Olympics for each individual or separate violation.

On Thursday, the organization announced it is "lifting the vaccine requirement for delegation members attending the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games being held in Orlando, Florida, June 5-12, as demanded by the state of Florida officials."

"We don't want to fight. We want to play," the charity said.

In April 2021, DeSantis signed an executive order banning so-called "vaccine passports" in the state of Florida. One month later, the state legislature passed a bill that the governor signed into law prohibiting businesses and governments from requiring proof of vaccination and imposing fines for each violation.

At a press conference Friday, DeSantis reiterated his opposition to vaccine mandates or passports and said Florida's rejection of those policies has led to a boom in tourism and economic growth in the state.

"Your rights or your freedoms should not be circumscribed by your decision to take or not to take a COVID vaccine," DeSantis said, according to WFTX-TV. "That was inappropriate. At the end of the day, our view was there has to be choice in this regard."

He also praised the Special Olympics' decision to comply with Florida law.

"This will be a relief to a lot of the athletes," DeSantis said. "There's a significant number of them who were in limbo up until this week."

DeSantis has won praise among his supporters and fierce condemnation from his critics for his willingness to use the government's power to go after businesses that challenge his policies.

Earlier this year, the governor supported an effort by the state legislature to strip the Walt Disney World Resort of its special tax status because of Disney's opposition to Florida's Parental Rights in Education law. On Thursday, DeSantis vetoed $35 million in state funding for new baseball practice facility for the Tampa Bay Rays seemingly in response to the MLB organization advocated for gun control on social media.

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