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A Florida landlord is requiring vaccines for tenants. Is that legal?

The landlord operates approximately 1,200 rental units but will require vaccines for anyone wanting to move in or renew a lease. The situation could serve as a test case.

A Florida landlord who controls approximately 1,200 rental units across two counties is requiring both new and existing tenants to have COVID-19 vaccines — thus opening a new chapter in the increasingly tense debate about safety during the pandemic.

The landlord, Santiago A. Alvarez, operates several large apartment complexes in Florida’s Broward and Miami-Dade counties, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which first reported the story. Beginning Aug. 15, all new tenants at the complexes were required to show proof of vaccination before moving in. Additionally, existing tenants will now need vaccines to renew their leases.

The new policy was announced to tenants via letters taped up at the complexes. The letters are topped by the words “zero tolerance” in bold, underlined type.

Speaking to the Sun-Sentinel, Alvarez explained the policy by saying “we have to be concerned about our tenants and our employees.” He also said that between 12 and 15 of his tenants have died from COVID-19.

“All of these are private properties,” Alvarez continued. “We’re just trying to keep people safe and healthy. It’s going to cost us money, but we’re very firm on that.”

Inman reached out to Alvarez’s apartment complexes Wednesday but did not immediately receive a response. His attorney also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, speaking to the Washington Post, he reiterated that he is upset his “employees are exposed to [COVID-19] all days of the week because there is someone who does not want to get vaccinated.”

“If you don’t want to get vaccinated, I have the obligation and the duty to protect my workers and tenants,” he added to the Post.

Despite the concerns, the policy has not gone over well with all the tenants of Alvarez’s complexes. One man, who did not provide his name, told the Sun-Sentinel that requiring tenants to get vaccines “should be illegal.”

Similarly, Jasmine Irby, a tenant who has also lived at one of Alvarez’s complexes, told the Post she has filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Irby also reportedly retained an attorney, who sent Alvarez a letter arguing that the vaccine policy broke an order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that banned “vaccine passports” — or proof of vaccination from business patrons — in the state.

Either way, the situation serves as a test case in the emerging legal and culture war over COVID-19 vaccination. Though vaccines for the virus first became available in the U.S. beginning late in 2020, the rate at which new vaccines are being administered has slowed in recent months. At the same time, the virus’ delta variant has kept the number of infections and deaths steadily ticking upward — long after many believed the crisis would be over.

The result is a patchwork of rules and policies that aim, on the one hand, to drive vaccination rates and, on the other, to prioritize individual freedom. The highest profile of these policies is likely that of President Joe Biden, who announced earlier this month that he would require employers with 100 or more staff members to have their workers either vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus.

In real estate, several firms including Related Companies and the Durst Organization have said they will require employees to get vaccines. NAR President Charlie Oppler has also encouraged Realtors to social distance and wear masks, while Gary Keller ignited a debate in the industry when he strongly urged members of Keller Williams to get vaccines.

It remains to be seen how this issue will play out in the rental industry, though it’s almost certain that the question will eventually make its way into the courts.

For his part, though, Alvarez reportedly believes he’s on firm legal ground. His attorney Juan C. Zorrilla told the Sun-Sentinel that he believes the rule at Alvarez’s complexes is legal because renters are not patrons or of a business restaurant customers.

“We believe that there is a clear distinction between someone who is an occupant of a dwelling and physically on the premises for an extended duration of time versus someone who is a patron or customer and simply visiting for a short duration,” Zorrilla wrote to the Sun-Sentinel. “By only identifying two categories of people who are transient, we do not believe the Order would be interpreted by a court to include tenants or residents of a business or property.”

By Jim Dalrymple II

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