Federal appeals court reinstates Biden administration’s testing and vaccine mandate

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes says the state will immediately appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Lowe administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru event organized by the Utah County Health Department in Spanish Fork on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

A federal appeals court reinstated the Biden administration’s testing and vaccine mandate for some large businesses on Friday. The rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) required businesses with 100 or more employees to have those employees vaccinated or tested weekly. Those that did not comply could face hefty fines.

In November, Utah joined several other GOP-led states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, in suing the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA, claiming the rule was an “egregious and unprecedented exercise of coercive power,” by the Biden administration. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to stop the rule, which was set to go into effect on Jan. 4.

In the decision, the 6th Circut said there is a historical precedent that supports OSHA’s implementation of the rule, citing previous efforts by OSHA to regulate the response to infectious diseases like HIV or HBV.

“OSHA’s authority includes protection against infectious diseases that present a significant risk in the workplace, without regard to exposure to that same hazard in some form outside the workplace,” Judge Jane Stranch, who was appointed to the bench by Barack Obama, wrote in the opinion.

The court also noted the rise of COVID variants necessitates the need for vaccinations to “control the spread of the disease to slow further mutations.”

Stranch was joined by Judge Julia Gibbons, a George W. Bush appointee, in voting to lift the stay.

Judge Joan Larsen, appointed by Donald Trump, was the lone dissent in the ruling.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes expressed disappointment in the ruling.

“Utah and several dozen states intend to seek immediate, emergency relief with the U.S. Supreme Court. We remain confident that the Court will agree that the mandate is unconstitutional federal overreach. Regardless, the Sixth Circuit’s ruling does not immediately affect Utah because our state’s OSHA Division has not adopted the rule,” Reyes said in a statement.

Utah’s OSHA division operates independently of the federal government but is required to implement standards that are at least equal to any federal rule. The U.S. Department of Labor announced in October they were moving to revoke part of Utah’s approval to run its own workplace safety program for failing to implement a previous COVID-19 safety rule for health care workers.

The decision comes as the omicron COVID-19 variant is spreading rapidly. Officials are still trying to determine how much of a risk is posed by the new strain.

Utah officials have repeatedly urged residents to get vaccinated. In November, lawmakers passed legislation to force employers to allow employees to opt-out of any vaccine mandate due to “deeply held personal beliefs.”