SANTA ROSA BEACH – Congressman Matt Gaetz wrote a letter to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis informing him of a “flagrant violation” in Walton County of an executive order intended to frustrate businesses or government entities from requesting vaccine passports.
The county’s Cultural Arts Alliance, organizers of the popular 30A Songwriters Festival, found themselves at Gaetz Junction when they issued safety protocols requiring attendees to show evidence of a negative test or check for a full vaccination.
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The music festival, which attracts thousands of people, is scheduled to kick off on Friday and continue through the weekend.
Gaetz shared his message to the public in a press release issued on Monday.
“Your Executive Order permits entities to participate in COVID-19 screening in general, but does not permit different treatment of vaccinated and unvaccinated people,” said the letter from Gaetz to DeSantis. “I ask you to give this matter your immediate attention.”
The “strict and widespread series of COVID-19 protocol measures” put in place for the Songwriter Festival are designed to protect the health and well-being of all event attendees, according to the Cultural Arts Alliance website. Test results must be professionally administered within 72 hours of being presented to event staff.
“Please ensure that the COVID protocol applies not only to ticket holders, but to all artists, volunteers, staff and technology personnel working at the festival,” the website said.
Gates claims that the Songwriters Festival, which this year is set to feature more than 160 artists in venues along Highway 30A, is “partly funded” by the Walton County Tourist Development Board, a government entity.
Gates’ letter stated that “vaccine passports should not be funded by Florida taxpayers.”
Gaetz asked the governor to “report the Walton County Tourism Development Board of the repercussions if they continue to fund the 30A Songwriters Festival under these illegal circumstances.”
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Cultural Arts Alliance employees moved into an office in the Watercolor community ahead of the Songwriter Festival. Efforts to reach CEO Jennifer Steele through Watercolor staff have been unsuccessful.
TDC’s director of communications, Matt Algarin, said the marketing agency is calling on the Department of Health to scrutinize event plans.
“We welcome the opportunity for the governor and his team to review these concerns (raised by Gates) and will await an outcome from his office,” he said in an email.
Algarin also offered a point of clarification regarding Gaetz’s claim that the 30A Songwriter Festival is funded in part with taxpayer money.
“What the Walton County Department of Tourism is providing for the 30A Songwriters Festival, as well as other events, is a refundable grant for marketing efforts. It is not a sponsorship for this event,” he said. “Essentially, the event applies to be part of the event marketing grant program and, if approved, will be eligible for a refund of a portion of its marketing spend as long as it meets specific criteria.”
Algarin said payment is only made after the event is over and documents are reviewed and approved.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Buchou said the governor’s office received the letter from Gates on Tuesday and it has been passed to the Florida Department of Health for “appropriate follow-up.”
“The Department of Health is the agency that investigates these complaints and, where appropriate, takes enforcement action against entities found to be in violation of the law,” Buchou said. An administrative fine of $5,000 for each violation, according to the law.
Daniel Olfelder, a Walton County District Attorney and a frequent and outspoken critic of the DeSantis administration, said in his understanding of Executive Order 21-18 — which Gates noted in his letter — that the order is designed to protect the rights of non-vaccinators.
The Cultural Arts Alliance has created a convenient solution to force proof of vaccination status by offering event attendees an alternative instead of showing up with negative COVID test results, according to Uhlfelder.
“If you haven’t been vaccinated, all you have to do is show that you have a test. I’m not even sure how that applies to the executive order,” he said. “It doesn’t require you to be vaccinated, you just have to show them a negative test.”
In her email response to concerns raised by Gaetz, Pushaw noted that Executive Order 21-18 was drawn up specifically to address vaccination passports. Nothing in her comments addressed the issue of showing negative test results as a violation of anyone’s rights.
In her email response to a query, she said: “With the escalation of the Corona virus among individuals who have received full vaccinations, and the increasing evidence that vaccines are completely ineffective in preventing infection and its transmission, the whole concept of a vaccine passport is in conflict with science.” “Some people cannot get vaccinated due to medical conditions, adverse effects, or personal beliefs. Vaccination against COVID-19 is a private medical decision, and anyone with questions should consult their health care provider.”
Acting Walton County Administrator Didi Henot, Walton Sheriff Michael Adkinson and the state health department have been notified of Gates’ letter to the governor as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Truth and Dignity Commission was in the process of releasing a press release regarding the 30A Songwriter’s Festival at press time, and Hinote said the Walton County Commission may address Gaetz’s letter and safety protocols for the Cultural Arts Alliance at its Tuesday afternoon meeting.
Truth and Dignity Commission statistics showed that the 2019 30A Songwriters Festival grossed more than $7 million, of which $4.7 million came from 3,848 people who traveled from outside the county to participate. An estimated 5,479 attendees stayed in local rental units or hotels.
Olfelder said he did not understand the Florida First District congressman’s interest in interfering with the smooth functioning of an economically significant event.
“It’s unfortunate, but this is our congressman,” he said. “I’m not going to try to get Matt Gaetz’s head down and figure out his motives. I’m just saying let the music play and Matt can come out with a negative test and enjoy himself.”