Lawmaker wants to block Utah from forcing people to get the vaccine, but says businesses can

Rep. Robert Spendlove says schools may be one sticking point with his coronavirus legislation.

(Courtesy University of Utah Health) University of Utah Health unboxes their COVID-19 vaccines, prep the doses, and giving vaccinations to front-line health care workers on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

Utah’s front-line health workers are now getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the beginning of a huge endeavor that in the latter half of 2021 may end with the community having “herd immunity.” That’s when enough people are immune that the virus can’t effectively spread.

With the measles, it’s estimated that 94% of the population must be immune to establish herd immunity. Experts don’t know what that percentage needs to be for COVID-19, but vaccinations are the quickest and least deadly way to get there.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, says he supports vaccinations but understands that some people may object to getting the shots. And, as a result, he’s proposing a bill for the January legislative session to block the state from mandating vaccinations, while not blocking individual businesses from imposing a requirement.

As Spendlove bluntly puts it, “We want to make sure we’re keeping government out of this process.”

That comports with the fairly libertarian stance the Utah Legislature has taken in regards to fighting the coronavirus since March. In an April special session, lawmakers passed a bill to shield businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, except in cases of extreme negligence. Legislators have also tangled with Gov. Gary Herbert over pandemic-related restrictions as well as requiring people to wear face masks to slow the spread of the virus.

Spendlove thinks it makes sense for certain businesses or even certain sectors to require vaccines, but the rule shouldn’t come from legislators or the governor.

“We shouldn’t prevent hospitals from mandating that their employees have to have the vaccine before they come to work,” he said. “I’ve heard talk of airlines mandating that passengers have a vaccine. It’s up to that private entity.”

Governments do have the authority to require vaccinations. In 1902, during a smallpox outbreak in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the city required all adults to be vaccinated. If not, they faced a fine of $5. The Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states have the authority to enact reasonable regulations as necessary to protect public health, public safety, and the common good, even if it infringes on personal liberties.

“The rights of the individual may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint to be enforced by reasonable regulations as the safety of the general public may demand,” wrote the court.

Despite that clear legal authority, Spendlove believes the Legislature should pass his bill to set aside that power.

There’s one grey area Spendlove is worried about when he brings his proposal to the Legislature — what to do about schools?

“We have a combination of private and public schools and universities, and we need to figure out how to deal with that,” he said. “I don’t think universities should be mandating vaccines for their students, but I think there needs to be more discussion about that.

“We shouldn’t be forcing people to get it, but we also need to have proper protections for the rest of us that are at risk,” he added. “I think it’s totally appropriate for private entities to say, if you don’t have this, then you won’t be able to participate in certain activities.”