How Utah’s ban on mandating the COVID-19 vaccine could end next month

Utah law applies to vaccines under emergency authorization. Full FDA authorization for the Pfizer vaccine is expected by Labor Day.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People are vaccinated against COVID-19 at the former Provo High School gym at 1125 N. University Ave. on July 28, 2021.

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Utah has a law, passed earlier this year, that blocks state and local governments from requiring vaccinations against COVID-19.

The ban extends to state colleges and universities, which cannot require students, faculty or employees to get vaccinated. Public schools are also blocked from requiring vaccinations.

But the prohibition soon may fall by the wayside.

HB308, which passed almost unanimously during the 2021 session, blocks government from requiring that people receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a term of employment or even as a requirement for attendance or participation in an activity. But the bill applies only to vaccines that are authorized for emergency use. Right now, all three of the vaccines being administered in the U.S. — from manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are under emergency authorization by the federal government.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, sponsored the vaccine mandate ban. He told fellow lawmakers during a legislative hearing in February that people may be uneasy with a vaccine that was under only emergency approval.

“Usually a vaccine takes four years to develop,” Spendlove said. “They were able to develop this in nine months. We don’t know what the side effects are. We haven’t been able to do long-term studies on the effects. We need to encourage people to get the vaccine, but we need to draw the line at allowing the government to mandate that people get this vaccine right now.”

The Food and Drug Administration is moving to give full approval to the Pfizer vaccine as early as next month. It was originally thought final authorization would come later in the fall, but the FDA is accelerating its timeline and aiming for Labor Day or sooner. When that approval is granted, Utah’s ban on governmental entities requiring that particular vaccine ends. The same applies to other vaccines when they win full authorization.

Leaders have been urging Utahns to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially as the delta variant of the virus is powering a surge in new cases. Do they take the next step and require vaccinations?

Support for businesses

When COVID-19 cases were falling and states were beginning to lift restrictions, Gov. Spencer Cox was crowing to anyone who would listen that Utah was one of the first states to ban so-called vaccine passports for government. Cox did say he believed private businesses could and should have the right to make rules about vaccinations for themselves and their employees.

The Cox administration’s stance hasn’t changed. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said she and Cox said they would back businesses that made vaccinations mandatory.

“We are big believers in the free market, and we’re also big believers in personal responsibility and consequences of action,” Henderson said. “My message for business owners is Governor Cox and I support you. If you decide to require your employees to be vaccinated, we support you in that.”

Cox’s office did not respond when asked if its stance on mandatory vaccinations for state government would change if and when the emergency approval for the Pfizer vaccine was lifted.

The federal government is requiring that employees and contractors get the vaccine. California, New York and North Carolina are also requiring state employees to do the same. Several large companies like Walmart, Walt Disney, Google, Facebook and Tyson Foods are making employees get vaccinated.

Schools and universities

Once the vaccines win full approval from the FDA, there’s nothing to stop Utah’s public schools, colleges and universities, or even state and local governments, from issuing their own vaccination requirements. The Republican-controlled Legislature could stop that, but it would require Cox calling lawmakers into a special session to enact an updated ban, or legislative leaders declaring an emergency to pass a new ban.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, says he hopes government agencies won’t implement a requirement once the emergency use authorization is lifted.

“I have a tough time with government mandates,” Adams said. “I’m encouraging everyone to get vaccinated. Before we go to a mandate, let’s see if the public steps up and gets vaccinated.”

It may be some time before leaders do issue a mandate.

“It is way too early to speculate since the vaccines are currently only being used under an emergency use authorization,” said Chloe Morroni, spokesperson for Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office was also taking a wait-and-see approach to a possible mandate.

“We know the sooner we get people vaccinated, the quicker we head toward the percentages we need to more widely protect our community,” Lindsey Nikola, Mendenhall’s spokesperson, said. “Once vaccinations start getting FDA approval, the mayor will evaluate whether or not a vaccination requirement is something we need to pursue based on up-to-date vaccination percentages.”