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You won’t have to get the vaccine to work for a Utah government if this bill passes

But the legislation wouldn’t stop private employers from making coronavirus vaccination rules.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Julyn Shepherd fills syringes for Utah County residents to get their COVID-19 vaccinations in a former Shopko store in Spanish Fork, Jan. 27, 2021. Utah lawmakers are advancing a measure that bans government from mandating people get inoculated.

Government agencies could not require Utahns to take the COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment or participation in a government-sponsored activity or event under a new bill that passed the House of Representatives on Monday.

If the legislation is signed into law, state and local officials in Utah would be unable to make rules that “directly or indirectly” require that someone receive the shot.

While state leaders want Utahns to get inoculated against the virus, they should also recognize that the vaccine was developed in record speed, said Rep. Robert Spendlove, the bill’s sponsor. And taking action to preempt government mandates now will prepare Utah for a vaccine distribution effort that will stretch onward for months.

“So often we’ve been playing catch-up and trying to catch up with the policy and what’s moving with the coronavirus,” the Sandy Republican said. “And so this would proactively set those policy goals, set those limitations on how far we as a state are willing to go.”

Spendlove said during a committee hearing on the bill last week that he wasn’t aware of any state or local government efforts to mandate a vaccine but felt the measure provided an important opportunity to reassure the public of that commitment.

The legislation’s ban would cover all branches of state government, along with school districts and counties, cities and towns. It would not address the actions of private businesses, Spendlove has noted.

During a brief discussion on HB308 on Monday, Rep. Merrill Nelson asked Spendlove if it would prohibit the government from mandating vaccines as a condition of taking a flight or using public transportation. Spendlove said such requirements would be barred under his legislation.

The House passed the bill by wide margin, with Nelson, R-Grantsville, and one other Republican voting in opposition. It now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said last week that he was not interested in mandating vaccines and that he didn’t think such a move would be necessary, given polling in Utah that shows large numbers of people are willing to get vaccinated without any requirement.

“I’m very confident that, vaccine supply being available, that we have enough people that really, really want this vaccine that will get us where we want to be,” he said.

A recent poll conducted by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah found that just 12% of Utahns surveyed said they would never get vaccinated against COVID-19, while 12% said they want to “wait and see how it goes” before getting inoculated. Some 60% of Utahns said they’ve already been vaccinated or want to be “as soon as possible.”

Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, spoke in favor of the bill during its committee hearing, noting that while it may be seen as a “message bill” it’s one that’s necessary in the current climate.

“We live in an age of mandates and executive order and response to this prolonged emergency, so I think a lot of people would just like to take this option off the table and make clear no one’s planning on doing this and reassure the public in that regard,” he said, “which may then help in the broader educational efforts to encourage people voluntarily to obtain the vaccine.”

The Utah Education Association has opposed the bill, expressing concerns that it could, for example, prohibit a school from temporarily assigning a non-vaccinated employee to work remotely in a community with high transmission rates.

The legislation does contain a couple exemptions for individuals who are government employees who work in public health and medical settings and are required to have a vaccine as part of their “assigned duties and responsibilities.” The governor would not be able to suspend or alter the general prohibition on state-mandated vaccinations, according to the bill.

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