It’s not clear if Utah can block Biden’s vaccine mandates, but some lawmakers are eager to try

Anti-mandate activists urge action, maintaining Utah’s economy could suffer if instituted

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utahns opposed to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses pack a committee hearing room at the Utah State Capitol on September 15, 2021.

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A mostly maskless crowd swarmed a Capitol Hill hearing room Wednesday in support of what they thought was a proposal to push back on federal vaccine mandates for businesses.

In reality, lawmakers were unclear what, if anything, they can realistically do.

In the first interim committee meeting since June, the Health and Human Services Committee gave 30 minutes to a group calling itself “Utah Open for Business.” The group delivered a stark warning to Utah lawmakers: requiring businesses to mandate vaccines for employees could have a grave impact on the state’s economy.

“Most people who refuse the vaccine are ideologically opposed, and will not get it because an employer says they must. They will quit or be fired,” member Kristin Chevrier said, adding, “We already have labor shortages and serious supply chain issues affecting every industry. What will the impact be on an already struggling economy if we suddenly have 30% of the workforce unemployed?”

President Joe Biden this month announced new requirements for businesses with 100 or more employees. Those employees must get COVID-19 vaccinate or be tested weekly to stop the spread of the virus. Businesses could face fines for violating the rules. Biden said he will also require all federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated with no option for testing.

According to figures from the U.S. Small Business Administration, just under half of Utah’s businesses have fewer than 100 employees, which means they would not be subject to those vaccine requirements.

A recent national survey shows 59% of remote workers favor a vaccine mandate for their own workplace while 47% of those working in person are opposed to the requirement.

Chevrier and others who spoke to the committee urged lawmakers to push back against Biden’s orders, which they said were unconstitutional. But what that pushback might look like was vague and undefined.

Presenters worried imposing requirements on businesses could add onerous administrative costs or compromise the privacy of workers who could be forced to disclose their vaccination status. They also raised the alarm about potential future mandates that don’t yet exist, like policing whether customers are vaccinated or not.

“The man-hours and additional employees needed to track their customers and report their vaccine status will be overwhelming to small businesses. What country are we living in? Please put an end to this madness in advance and protect Utah’s business community from having to enforce a potential policy that, in my opinion, is both unconstitutional and, even more important than that, un-American,” said Richard Mecham with Rich Broadcasting.

Others who addressed the committee brought up old compaints about mask mandates and economic lockdowns from the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.

It was unclear what, specifically, the group wants lawmakers to do. Chevrier was hoping lawmakers would move to pre-emptively head off a hypothetical policy on vaccines and vaccinations by the federal government.

“I’m not saying this is currently happening. I’m saying, based on the concept of what we’re being told could happen, that you would have to ask someone their medical status before they come into your place of business. I’m just anticipating what’s coming,” Chevrier said.

Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, co-chair of the committee, declined to comment on whether he was planning legislation on the issue for the upcoming 2022 session. How did the topic end up on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting?

“We all got together and decided we wanted to talk about the issue,” Kennedy said.

However, several committee members said they were not sure how the discussion was included. Committee chairs have broad discretion about what issues are, or are not, scheduled.

Kennedy, who is a medical doctor, refused to answer when asked his opinion of vaccinations.

Meanwhile, the number of Utahns hospitalized by COVID-19 continues to rise, reaching nearly 600, with more than 200 of them are in intensive care.

Gov. Spencer Cox pushed back against Biden’s vaccine mandate earlier this week, saying he supports vaccinations but thinks the president’s order may be unconstitutional.

Many of the concerns raised by the group found a sympathetic ear among several Republicans on the panel.

“I want to acknowledge the level of pent-up frustration I see in this room. Many of us up here are on your side,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.

But, he added, it’s not clear what lawmakers can do in the short term.

“Someone should have the right to say no, I’m not going to take the vaccine. I think that’s a fundamental right. As much as I wanted to thank you for being here, please engage in the process in a manner that we can work toward a better answer because, ultimately, we may have a long fight with the federal government on this,” Anderegg said.

Realistically, the earliest lawmakers could do anything to push back against the Biden administration would be next year when the regular session starts. If they were to pass a bill with a 2/3 majority in both the House and Senate, it would go into effect upon the signature of the governor. If they couldn’t muster that level of support, then the bill would go into effect 60 days after the end of the session, which would be May 2022.

There are already a handful of bills on tap for the 2022 session addressing vaccine mandates. Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, is looking into making businesses that require vaccines for employees liable for any side effects.