Despite Gov. Spencer Cox’s proclamation that Utahns are “ready to be done” with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear the public backlash to public health restrictions will linger in Utah’s politics for quite some time.
That was evident on Tuesday as the Utah House gave the green light to HB60, which would ban the use of vaccine passports by most employers, private businesses and government agencies. With few exceptions, those entities would no longer be able to ask about a person’s vaccine status or require them to be vaccinated.
The bill from Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, would prohibit “a place of public accommodation to discriminate against an individual based on the individual’s immunity status.”
In practice, businesses could not require customers to show proof of vaccination, and employers could not require vaccination in most cases.
“Never in our history have we gone to these depths to violate personal health information like this,” Brooks argued. “We don’t discriminate in Utah. You can’t quarantine someone just to prove you’re more virtuous.”
While Brooks’s bill may have been born of the friction between individual liberty and public health that came from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not an equal and opposite reaction. It applies to all vaccines, not just those for COVID-19.
“If we can’t fix this through a peaceful process, this is the kind of problem that is solved with pitchforks and torches,” Brooks said.
Before the pandemic, this kind of sweeping government intrusion may have been unfathomable in the GOP-led House, but Tuesday, Republicans who’d previously proclaimed the virtues of small government praised the measure.
“Just two years ago, I would have opposed this. We need to stop getting in the middle of each other’s health information,” Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, said.
“No one should ask me to do something against my will that is not reversible. No one should force me to put something in my blood that cannot be undone,” Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, said. Strong is one of several lawmakers who tested positive for COVID during the session.
But it wasn’t all posturing against the tyranny on Tuesday.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, scolded his colleagues for abandoning personal responsibility in favor of unlimited freedom.
“This bill goes too far. This is an entirely selfish perspective when it comes to rights. It’s totally oblivious to any thought of responsibility,” Nelson said. “This grants citizens the right to infect others.”
Spectators crowned into House gallery exploded in laughter at Nelson’s comments, drawing a mild rebuke from House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. The group was part of an effort on right-wing social media to support Brooks’s bill.
Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, unsuccessfully attempted to reel back the expansive nature of the proposal, offering a substitute to narrow the focus to just COVID.
“Adding a protected class creates a permanent problem. We have to respect the rights of businesses, too. We are adding costs and burdens to businesses, so we have to be careful,” Hawkes argued.
Brooks’ bill passed 51-23. It now heads to the Senate.