Group of firefighters continues to oppose Orange County vaccine mandate

Lawsuit filed Oct. 1

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A group of Orange County firefighters say they’re determined in moving forward with a lawsuit against the mayor’s vaccine mandate for county employees.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 1, said it is suing against the “unlawful and unconstitutional COVID-19 vaccine requirement.” Attorney Rachel Rodriguez said the lawsuit has been assigned to the 9th Judicial Court and a status conference is scheduled in the next couple of weeks.

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Forty-three employees with Orange County Fire Rescue were listed on the lawsuit suing the county over its vaccine mandate, documents show. The filing came one day after a deadline set by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings for county employees to have received at least one dose in a two-dose series from either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson.

Other firefighters not named in the lawsuit stood alongside them Sunday, opposing the county’s vaccine mandate.

Three firefighters — Jairo Rodriguez, Oscar Negron and Judith Toro — shared their experiences facing the mandate and serving the community throughout the pandemic.

“We love helping people. Let us just get back to doing that. That’s it, that’s all we want, and enough of this nonsense about the mandate, you know, it doesn’t make sense that you want to obligate a few, but not the many. Not everybody. We’re not against a vaccine. We’re against the mandate,” said Negron, who has been employed with Orange County Fire Rescue for nearly 19 years.

Negron was not named in the lawsuit but is against the mandate.

Rodriguez said he grew up in Hunters Creek and has dreamed of becoming a fireman.

“I can’t even imagine if I lose my job, or we all lose our jobs and our dreams come crashing down on us,” he said.

Many of the firefighters said they’re not against the vaccine, but against a mandate.

“We are fighting for our rights and our freedoms just to have freedom of choice on what to do with our bodies,” said Jason Wheat, an Orange County firefighter.

Last week, county officials said Orange County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Stephen Davis was fired after failing to follow a direct order over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. County officials said this was due to his refusal to issue a disciplinary action over vaccine verifications on Oct. 5.

“It’s been really difficult,” Toro said. “It’s caused a lot of animosity within the department.”

Davis discussed his termination at a news conference where Gov. Ron DeSantis called the Florida legislature to return for a special session to provide protections for workers against vaccine mandates.

After that press conference, Demings addressed Davis’ termination, saying the county has frequently acknowledged the risk first responders experience when protecting and serving the community. The county’s legal advisors also informed Demings that he is well within the law when it comes to the vaccine requirements issued to Orange County firefighters and the consequences for those who don’t follow these rules.

“One individual, a battalion chief, chose to be insubordinate and was fired by the fire chief. I support the action that has been taken in this regard. There is an established process for disciplinary appeals,” Demings said during a news conference. “We will aggressively defend our right to protect our citizens and our employees. Let the courts decide what was lawful.”

News 6 reached out to the county and a spokesperson said there are no further comments.

About the Authors:

Brenda, a UCF grad, joined the team in March 2021.

Jerry Askin is an Atlanta native who came to News 6 in March 2018 with an extensive background in breaking news.