SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – With the governor of Texas leading the charge, conservative Republicans in several states are set to block or undermine President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for private employers even before regulations are published.
The growing battle against what some see as excess on the part of the federal government is igniting part of the Republican Party base, even though many large employers have already made up their own minds to demand of their workers to get vaccinated.
The dust will almost certainly end in court as GOP attorneys general in nearly half of the states have vowed to prosecute once the rule is unveiled.
Courts have long upheld vaccination warrants, and the Constitution gives the federal government the upper hand over the states, but with details yet to be announced and more conservative judges on the bench, the outcome is not entirely clear.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order on Monday prohibiting private companies or any other entity from requiring vaccines. This was perhaps the most direct challenge yet from Biden’s announcement a month ago that workers in private companies with more than 100 employees should be vaccinated or tested for the coronavirus every week.
“No entity in Texas can compel an individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine (…) who opposes such vaccination,” Abbott wrote in his order.
White House officials rejected 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 would push through the opposition and put into effect the private workplace warrant along with others it had commissioned for federal contractors and workers at healthcare facilities receiving reimbursements. Medicare or Medicaid. In total, these mandates could affect up to 100 million Americans.
Noting the country’s COVID-19 death toll of more than 700,000, White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused the opposition of putting politics before security.
“I think it’s pretty clear when you make a choice that goes against all the public health information and data, that it’s not based on what’s in the best interests of the people you are doing. rule. Maybe it’s in the interest of your own policy, ”she said.
Several large Texas companies have already implemented their own vaccine mandates, and two Texas-based airlines, Southwest and American, said Tuesday they would follow the Biden administration’s order, saying the Federal action supersedes any warrant or state law.
Elsewhere, Arkansas lawmakers have approved a measure creating exemptions from the vaccination mandate. While the GOP governor has not said whether he will sign it, it has raised concerns that companies are being forced to choose whether to break federal or state law.
“We are binding the hands of Arkansas businesses who want to make their own decisions about how best to protect their employees,” said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. Some of the state’s largest companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods, have demanded that some or all employees get vaccinated.
Calls for special legislative sessions to counter vaccination warrants have been heard in states such as Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has so far resisted calls to immediately consider a project. of law that would guarantee people to opt out.
“I hear from people almost daily who are going to lose their jobs, living in fear,” said Republican state representative Scott Odenbach, who clashed with Noem on the matter. “They shouldn’t have to choose between feeding their families and their own medical freedom. “
In Tennessee, Republican lawmakers pushing GOP Governor Bill Lee to consider further easing COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine requirements, could jeopardize a $ 500 million incentive deal to attract a Ford Motor project Co., the Speaker of the House told a local radio station.
In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is also resisting a push by his party to ban workplace vaccination warrants.
Bills are also being introduced or drafted elsewhere, including in Ohio and New Hampshire, where the Republican godfather was elected Speaker of the House after his predecessor died from COVID-19.
“We have made it clear that government mandates are not the path to successful vaccination rates and will only cause further divisions in this country,” President Sherm Packard said last month.
In Utah, lawmakers took no action, but a crowd of more than 600 filled a legislative courtroom last week.
Rob Moore, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Big-D Construction, said he supported vaccines but had questions about the mandate’s deployment. He already has a shortage of workers at his construction sites, and he said employee surveys tell him nearly 20% of his workers don’t want to be vaccinated, so they should be tested every week.
“It’s heavy on our minds right now. I do not know if the federal government has thought through all of this. The cost is going to be huge, ”he said.
In other areas, vaccine needs have gone smoothly. In Utah, the Jazz of the NBA vaccinates its employees. It also requires fans during matches to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. So far, only a few ticket refunds have been needed, and the season opener is expected to be complete by next week, Jazz spokesman Frank Zang said.
“I think there is an understanding of what is at stake here, in terms of having a safe environment for people to again enjoy sports, concerts and shows,” he said. .
More than 200 million Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and serious side effects have been shown to be extremely rare. Experts say any risk from the vaccine is far less than the danger posed by COVID-19.
A recent poll shows that about half of Americans are in favor of workers in large companies getting vaccinated or tested every week. But people are divided based on their political party, with about 6 in 10 Republicans opposing the employees’ tenure, according to the Associated Press and NORC-Center for Public Affairs Research survey.
Montana is so far the only state to have passed a law prohibiting private employers from requiring vaccines. The measure includes penalties for business owners with a fine of $ 500 or jail time. He faces two legal challenges, from the Montana Medical Association and a law firm that says the rule interferes with companies’ decisions about how to provide a safe work environment.
As judges assess some of these cases, a lot will depend on exactly how the national rule is written. It will be drafted as a temporary emergency rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has broad power to regulate the workplace.
“They will need to phrase it in a way that demonstrates that this is a workplace related case and not just an attempt to increase vaccination rates in the United States more broadly,” said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, professor at the University of California Hastings College. of the law. “I expect the main benefit of the mandate to be that it covers companies that already want to do it.”
Associated Press editors Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; David Koenig in Dallas; Zeke Miller in Washington; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; Iris Samuels in Helena, Montana; and others across the country contributed to this report.