Lindsay Whitehurst | Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY – Under the leadership of the Texas governor, conservative Republicans in several states are trying to block or restrict President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccination demands for private employers even before the rules are issued.
The escalating struggle for what some see as overreaching from the federal government is fueling part of the GOP base, even as many large employers have already decided to demand that their workers get a chance.
The discussion will almost certainly end in court, as GOP attorneys general in nearly half of the states have pledged to sue as soon as the rule is made public.
Courts have long backed vaccination mandates and the Constitution gives the federal government an edge over the states, but with details still to be announced and more conservative bench judges, the outcome is not entirely clear.
On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting private companies or any other organization from demanding the vaccine. This was perhaps the most direct concern for Biden’s statement a month ago that workers in private companies with more than 100 employees would either have to get vaccinated or tested for coronavirus weekly.
“No legal entity in Texas can force COVID-19 vaccination on any person … who objects to such vaccination,” Abbott wrote in his order.
White House officials brushed off Abbott’s order, saying the question of whether state law could replace federal law was settled 160 years ago during the Civil War. They said the Biden administration will push through the opposition and implement a presidential mandate package that could affect up to 100 million Americans in total.
Noting that the country’s death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 700,000, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki accused the opposition of taking politics over security.
“I think that when you make a choice against all the public health information and data available, it’s very clear that it’s not based on what is in the best interest of the people you lead. Perhaps it is in the interest of your own policies, ”she said.
Several large companies in Texas have already met their own vaccine requirements, and two Texas-based airlines, Southwest and American, said Tuesday they would follow orders from the Biden administration, stating that federal action would overturn any state regulations or laws.
Elsewhere, lawmakers in Arkansas have approved a vaccine exemption measure. While the GOP governor did not say whether he would sign it, it raised concerns that businesses would be forced to choose whether to violate federal or state law.
“We tie the hands of businesses in Arkansas who want to make their own decisions about how best to keep their people safe,” said Randy Zuck, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. Some of the state’s largest companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods, have required vaccinations for some or all of their employees.
Calls for special legislative sessions to oppose the vaccine have been heard in states such as Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Christy Noem still resists calls for immediate consideration of legislation that would guarantee people the opportunity to refuse vaccinations.
“I hear almost daily from people who will lose their jobs and live in fear,” said Republican State Representative Scott Odenbach, who disagrees with Noah on this. “They don’t have to choose between feeding their family and their own medical freedom.”
In Tennessee, a $ 500 million incentive deal to attract Ford Motor Co. could be undermined if GOP Governor Bill Lee refuses to consider further easing COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine requirements, an influential House speaker told a local radio station.
In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is also resisting pressure within his party to ban vaccinations in the workplace.
Bills are being introduced or being drafted elsewhere, including wavering states such as Ohio and New Hampshire, where the Republican sponsor was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives after his predecessor died of COVID-19.
“We have made it clear that government orders are not the road to successful vaccinations, but will only cause further division in this country,” Speaker Sherm Packard said last month.
In Utah, lawmakers have taken no action, but a record crowd of more than 600 filled the legislature’s floor last week.
Rob Moore, CEO of Big-D Construction in Salt Lake City, said he supports vaccines but has questions about the mandate rollout. He already has a shortage of workers in his workplaces, and said employee surveys show him that almost 20% of his workers do not want to get vaccinated, so they will need to be checked weekly.
“This is very important for us now. I don’t know if the federal government has thought it all well. The cost will be enormous, ”he said.
In other sectors, the need for vaccines has gone smoothly. In Utah, the Jazz NBA forces its employees to get vaccinated. It also requires fans to show proof of vaccination or negative test for COVID-19 at games. There have only been a few refunds for tickets so far, and season opening tickets are expected to be sold out by next week, Jazz spokesman Frank Zang said.
“I think there is an understanding of what is at stake here in terms of creating a safe environment so that people can enjoy sports, concerts and shows again,” he said.
While a conservative legislative push may not ultimately lead to mandates being blocked, it could be a stumbling block and could be another factor pushing the GOP even further to the right.
For example, Abbott’s order came when he faced criticism from right-wing candidates over COVID-19 policy. In Arizona, the attorney general has filed a preliminary lawsuit because he is running in a crowded Republican primary in the US Senate.
Mike Meckler, a Texas conservative activist who helped create the Tea Party a decade ago, said the mandate issue is stirring up youth. He described the mood of the activists as follows: “If you are not with us, then you are with the fascists.”
Only about 56% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, well below what experts say is needed to control the virus.
More than 200 million Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and serious side effects have been extremely rare. Experts say that any risk associated with a vaccine is much lower than the danger posed by COVID-19.
A recent poll shows that about half of Americans are in favor of requiring workers in large companies to be vaccinated or tested weekly. But according to a poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Public Relations Research Center, roughly 6 in 10 Republicans oppose the employee mandate.
Even before Biden’s announcement, more than 100 bills were passed in state legislatures to limit the number of vaccines, according to Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at Hastings College of Law at the University of California. Most have failed, but several states have imposed some restrictions, many of which are associated with government agencies or schools.
Montana is the only state with a law prohibiting private employers from demanding vaccines. This measure includes fines for business owners in the form of a $ 500 fine or jail time. He faces two lawsuits, from the Montana Medical Association and from a law firm, which claims the rule prevents companies from making decisions about how to provide a safe work environment.
As judges weigh some of these cases, much will depend on how the nationwide rule is written. This will be carried out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has broad mandate to regulate workplaces. It will be formalized as a temporary emergency rule.
“They will have to frame it to prove that it has to do with the workplace and not just trying to increase vaccination rates in the United States more broadly,” Reiss said. “I expect that the main benefit of the mandate will be that it provides cover for companies that already want to do so.”
AP Writers David Koenig in Dallas; Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; John Hannah in Topeka, Kansas; Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Zeke Miller in Washington; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; Iris Samuels in Helena, Montana; and others across the country contributed to this report.