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Special Olympics drops COVID-19 vaccine mandate after Florida plans millions in fines

The Special Olympics has lifted its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the 2022 USA Games after Florida moved to fine the organization $27.5 million for violating a state law against such rules.

In a statement Thursday, the Special Olympics said it was lifting the vaccine requirement "as required by state of Florida officials on May 27, based upon the Florida Department of Health's interpretation of Florida law." People who would have been ineligible under the previous vaccine requirement can now attend the Games.

"We look forward to welcoming thousands of Special Olympics athletes, families, and fans to an extraordinary 2022 USA Games," the organization said.

The announcement was made after a letter from the Florida Department of Health said it would impose a $27.5 million fine on Special Olympics International for 5,500 violations of a Florida statute because of the vaccine mandate. The number of violations represented a $5,000 fine for each person ordered to certify their vaccination status.

A copy of the letter from the department of health was obtained by multiple outlets, including ABC News.

Florida law bars businesses from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination. Ron DeSantis, the state's governor, has strongly opposed vaccine mandates and other coronavirus policies endorsed by the federal government, and he praised the Special Olympics' change Friday.

"In Florida, we want all of them to be able to compete," DeSantis said at a news conference. "We do not think it's fair or just to be marginalizing some of these athletes based on a decision that has no bearing on their ability to compete with honor or integrity."

The USA Games are set to be begin Sunday and run through June 12. The event is being held at sites around Orlando, Florida, including at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.