A bill to ban the use of vaccine passports by employers or governments has passed the House despite concerns that it takes an overly broad approach that could hamper future public health efforts.
HB60 would essentially make vaccination status a protected class – similar to race, gender and religion – and prevent employers from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment. The bill comes amid a pushback against COVID-19 vaccination requirements, but is not limited to the current pandemic.
That’s why Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, unsuccessfully tried to replace the bill with one that would only apply to COVID-19. He called his substitution a “scalpel approach” that would achieve the goal of preventing coronavirus vaccine passports without tying the hands of health officials in future pandemics – which could be deadlier than COVID. -19.
Hawkes argued that creating a “protected class” of people based on vaccination status would place an undue burden on companies. While such burdens are necessary to protect people based on their race or gender, he said vaccination status was different.
He pointed to the exemptions in the bill for health industries as evidence that vaccines can be constrained in certain situations.
“That’s because vaccines are a bit tricky, because a communicable disease potentially affects someone else’s rights,” Hawkes said. “It’s tricky that way, and that’s why we don’t treat it the same way we might treat race or religion or things like that. If it was something like race or religion … we would not accept any exemptions to that.
Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, also supported the substitution, arguing it puts “our state and our businesses in Utah in extreme jeopardy.”
Hawkes’ motion to target the COVID-19 bill failed and the House passed the previous version that was discussed in committee last week.
Representative Walt Brooks, R-St. George, who sponsored the bill, acknowledged the difficulty of balancing individual liberty and public health, but said he thought the bill did a good job.
“No one has the right to access your personal information. You have no right to go out and spread disease. So we have to figure out where to draw that line,” he said.
Brooks argued that his bill is an effort to protect citizens’ privacy and would prevent them from having to “show papers” to enter businesses and public spaces. Privacy was a key factor for others who spoke in favor of the bill.
“It’s worth having a protected class related to privacy. … We need to stop interfering with each other’s health information,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland.
If a future crisis arises, Brammer said the legislature and governor could create exemptions to the bill or pass future laws to enact vaccine mandates if necessary. The governor has the power to declare a public health emergency for up to 30 days, after which the legislature would have to vote to maintain it.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, took issue with repeated calls for privacy and freedom that make no mention of the responsibility to protect each other. Even though Utahans are learning to live with the virus, he pointed out that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the state.
“We often hear now, what are the low infection rates and low death rates, ‘It only killed 1,000 people.’ Which, you know, I guess it’s okay if it doesn’t include your family,” he said.
To date, 4,372 Utahns have died from COVID-19, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The bill ignores the “social compact” people have as a society, Nelson said, and “grants our citizens the right to infect others.” From a conservative perspective, he likened the issue to that of abortion, saying he thinks the woman’s right to “bodily autonomy” is superseded by the fetus’ right to life.
Getting vaccinated is an “obligation”, he said, pushing back against those who say they have “a basic, God-given right to go everywhere…whether I’m contagious or not”.
“It’s an entirely selfish perspective on rights,” he said.
“It’s true that we should have a sense of community,” said Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale. “It’s true that we don’t know what the future holds. But to me, it’s true, from the soles of your feet to the top of your head, that no one should ask you to do something against my will that isn’t reversible.
Closing the discussion, Brooks dismissed the idea of lawmakers “using a mandate to remove a mandate,” saying they were acting as “the voice of the people to remove that mandate.”
“Without this peaceful process, it relies on pitchforks and torches,” he said.
HB60 passed the House 51-23. He now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, is the floor sponsor.