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Utah lawmakers debate bill to add exemptions to Biden COVID vaccine or testing mandate

Utahns opposing the mandate were angered by lack of time for public comment.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People fill the room and several overflow rooms as the Business and Labor interim committee discusses a bill about vaccine mandates by the Biden administration at the Utah State Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

Hundreds of Utahns packing legislative committee rooms to vent their frustrations is becoming common on Utah’s Capitol Hill. But, the throng of Utahns itching to rail against the Biden administration’s testing or COVID-19 vaccine mandate were left angry and unsatisfied on Tuesday.

At issue was a proposal from Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, that sought to give Utah a way around the testing or vaccine mandate for large private businesses announced by the Biden administration last week. That directive requires companies with 100 or more employees to require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly. Failure to comply could result in crippling fines.

SB2004 requires businesses that implement a vaccine mandate to allow exemptions for medical or religious reasons or due to a deeply held personal belief. The bill also blocks any “adverse action” against an employee who avails themselves of one of the exemptions.

“We want to find a balance between business rights and individual rights, but with the premise that individual rights should trump business rights,” Cullimore said.

Cullimore indicated there are changes still to come to the legislation.

Other committee business ate up the largest part of the schedule on Tuesday, which dramatically reduced the amount of time available for public comment on the vaccine mandate, clearly angering people who had come to speak.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heather Brown is joined by her children as she speaks in opposition to a vaccine mandate by the Biden administration as she joins others with a similar view while speaking at the Business and Labor interim committee hearing at the Utah State Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

“Should we give the unvaccinated a star to wear on their clothes?” Brent Maxwell asked. “Prohibit them from attending events? Bar them from the public square? Fire them from their jobs and eventually send them away?”

“Your job is to protect our rights,” Larry Molcock said. “If there’s an unconstitutional federal law, it’s your job to resist and prevent that kind of tyranny.

When time ran out, most of the remaining crowd erupted with anger, yelling and making obscene gestures at the committee.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heather Fannen sings loudly in protest in the Senate building at the Utah State Capitol following limited public speaking time at the conclusion of the Business and Labor interim committee hearing where the vaccine mandate by the Biden administration was being discussed on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

Speaking to the full Senate chamber following the committee hearing, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the public testimony had been “crystal clear” and categorically opposed to vaccine requirements. He noted that he presided over an October committee hearing where hundreds of citizens also turned out in an adamant show of opposition toward mandates.

“This is something that really hits at the very core of who we are as a people, who we are as a nation,” said Bramble, who explained that he’d been vaccinated but believes it should be a matter of personal choice. “And those individual liberties that we have paid dearly over the last 200-plus years to preserve.”

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, on the other hand, suggested that an energized group of vaccine critics is overwhelming the voices of people who favor health mandates.

Utah filed a lawsuit against the mandate shortly after it was announced. A federal court has put the vaccine order on hold.

Bethany Rodgers contributed reporting to this article.

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