Vaccine rule complaints filed against Florida arts venues, businesses and cruise lines

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is host to a variety of concerts, comedy, dance and touring Broadway musicals.

More than 100 performing arts centers, cruise lines and other businesses, along with some public officials across the state are being investigated by the Florida Department of Health for possible violation of a state law prohibiting the use of a COVID-19 vaccine passport or other mandates.

Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Riverview High School Performing Arts Center, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and Mid-Florida Amphitheatre in Tampa, as well as similar venues around the state are among those listed. Feld Entertainment Studios, which has a large rehearsal and event space in Palmetto, also is under investigation.

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The Department of Health could impose fines of $5,000 for each infraction on municipal governments under the state’s recently enacted law banning vaccine passports.

Across the state, many performance venues, like the Straz and Broward centers, have adopted safety protocols that require patrons to provide proof of a negative COVID test, or to show a vaccination card as an alternative. The vaccine cards are not required for admittance.

Arts leaders in the Sarasota area launched the #SafeArtsSarasota initiatives that require mask wearing and negative tests with the vaccine card as an alternative. Van Wezel is one of more than 30 organizations that adopted the protocols.

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Under SB-2006, which was approved earlier this year to prohibit businesses from requiring patrons to show proof of vaccines, the state health department “has the authority to enforce penalties on applicable entities and institutions that require documentation of vaccination or post-exposure status,” according to a statement from the agency.

It also allows anyone who sees possible violations to file a complaint via email at

“We have not been contacted by anyone about the list and I spoke to people at a number of other venues on the list and one of the key takeaways is that this is a list of user-generated complaints,” said Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel hall, which is owned by the City of Sarasota. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we have violated anything.”

Mary Bensel is executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

Bensel said she is not aware that anyone from the city government has been contacted by the department of health. “We haven’t even had a show here yet this season.”

In August, Christina Pushaw, press secretary to Gov. Ron DeSantis, said SB-2006 “only prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers as a condition of entry or service.” She said if concert or theatergoers “can provide a negative COVID test instead of a vaccine passport, that is acceptable under the law. People who want to show proof of vaccination instead of a COVID test are free to do that. It just cannot be compelled.”

The Florida list of businesses, organizations and individuals that are under review

DOH distributed a list of businesses, organizations and individuals that are under review. Some, like iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach and House of Blues in Orlando, are cited more than once, though the list provides no details of possible violations. Some names also are misspelled.

It lists the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, the Broward Center of the Performing Arts, the Dr. Phillips Center/Walt Disney Theater in Orlando, Mid Florida Credit Union (for a Zack Brown concert), the Gasparilla Music Festival, the new World Symphony, the Armory Center for the Arts in West Palm Beach. The Amway Center in Orlando was cited for a Harry Styles concert.

A view of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.

Disney, Norwegian and Carnival are among cruise lines listed. Norwegian has challenged the law in court. 

Complaints also have been filed against a Starbucks (no location provided); Lauren Poe, the mayor of Gainesville; Jerry Demings, mayor of Orange County; and Miramar City Manager Vernon E. Hargray. Raytheon Technologies, Moffitt Communications, American Gas Association, AT&T, American Gas Association, Advent Health and the Miami Marlins also are mentioned.

Richard Russell, general director of the Sarasota Opera, said each of the initial nine organizations that developed #SafeArtsSarasota protocols had them vetted by their attorneys and the group consulted policies being adopted and developed by other venues across the state.

“We had the statement from the press secretary to the governor who said it was consistent with the law, and one of our organizations had a meeting with state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who said it was not in violation of the law,” Russell said. 

Russell said when the organizations announced the new procedures “we got some emails from people who said they had reported us to the governor, the Department of Health, the assembly speaker. Most of the people who said these things were not in our database.”

Bensel said some of the most negative comments “are from people we don’t have in our system” as coming to the hall.

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