SALT LAKE CITY – Utah Democrats are condemning ongoing legislative efforts to block President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates for businesses as “… a dangerous and boneheaded act that will hurt Utahns, destroy public safety and damage business recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
That accusation came in response to a public hearing before the Business and Labor Committee of the Senate on Tuesday, during the first day of a special session of the Legislature summoned by Gov. Spencer Cox.
That meeting discussed legislation proposed by Sen. Kirk Cullimore (R-Draper), the majority assistant whip in the Senate, that would provide Utahns with medical, religious and personal exemptions to the president’s vaccination mandates.
“Republicans in the Utah Legislature seem dead set on hurting their own constituents,” according to Joshua Rush, the communications director for the Utah Democratic Party.
The current special session of the Legislature began less than a week after the Biden administration released its long-awaited vaccine requirement.
That ruling, issued Nov. 4 by the U.S. Department of Labor through its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), ordered businesses with 100 or more employees to institute mandatory vaccinations for their workers or weekly COVID-19 testing protocols not later than Jan. 4, 2022.
In his proclamation calling Utah’s 64th Legislature into its second special session, Cox specifically instructed lawmakers to “consider provisions related to COVID-19 and the workplace.”
“The (coronavirus) vaccines are a miracle of science and represent the best way to end the pandemic,” the governor acknowledged in a statement issued on Nov. 4. “But a federal mandate is heavy-handed overreach that will harden vaccine resistance and polarization.
“Workplace vaccination and testing policies should remain firmly the prerogative of business owners. We’re committed to fighting the (Biden) mandate through every possible avenue.”
A large crowd of participants at Tuesday’s hearing on Cullimore’s proposed mandate exemptions needed little encouragement from Cox. While some applauded Cullimore’s bill, others testified that Utah should take an even stronger stance against the Biden policy.
But the state’s Democratic Party leaders insist that the inflammatory rhetoric displayed during that hearing was stoked by “… breathless and irresponsible talking points from the GOP.”
“Vaccine requirements are popular with the American public and business owners,” said Diane Lewis, the acting chair of the Utah Democratic Party. “More importantly, they work to stem the tide of the virus.
“Businesses and organizations that implement such requirements are seeing their vaccination rates rise by an average of 20 percent to more than 90 percent. When we all get vaccinated, we are all safer.”
Recent surveys conducted by public health officials seem to support the Democrats’ position. Mandates proactively adopted by some business giants – including United and Delta airlines as well as Tyson Foods — have driven increases in their vaccination rates.
Vaccine mandates have also benefited hospital systems in California and New York state.
Despite those anecdotal success stories, seven high-ranking GOP state officials from Utah have joined one of numerous federal lawsuits opposing Biden’s vaccine mandate. They are Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson, State Auditor John Dougall and State Treasurer Marlo M. Oaks.
On Nov. 6, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued a ruling suspending the Biden mandate. Those justices wrote that there was “cause to believe that there are grave statutory and constitutional issues with the mandate.”
The ruling is only temporary, while the appeals court conducts a judicial review of those issues.
In the meantime, lawmakers here have pledged to continue to debate ways to relieve Utah employees of vaccination mandates.