Georgia lawmaker wants to ban vaccine mandates amid coronavirus surge

Alpharetta Republican Sen. Brandon Beach says he will file a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would prohibit any COVID-19 vaccine mandate or requirement that a so-called vaccine passport can be used as a condition to work, go to school or enter a business.

“It should not be the place of any government or business to institute mandates that their employees or customers receive a COVID-19 vaccine or to provide proof of vaccination in order to receive a service,” Beach said in a statement Friday.

Beach frustrated his colleagues last year when he showed up for a special session even though he felt sick. A COVID-19 test later came back positive.

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Details on the proposed bill are scarce — lawmakers cannot file legislation for the 2022 session that starts in January until Nov. 15. And large Georgia employers are pressing employees to get vaccinated well before the law could take effect.

But Beach would be on solid legal ground, said Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University.

“Just as a state could ban discrimination on certain bases or certain traits in the civil rights law, states can also adopt legislation that constrains employers from asking or demanding their employees have had the vaccine,” he said. “The only caveat there is, as long as it doesn’t conflict with some kind of federal mandate — which we don’t have one yet — states have pretty wide discretion to form employment-related legal policy.”

In fact, anti-vaccine legislation has been on the rise in state legislatures since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year. In 2019, state legislatures considered 116 anti-vaccine bills and signed two into law. So far this year, lawmakers around the country have considered 380 such bills and signed 27, according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO, an industry advocacy group.

“We’ve dealt with vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine sentiments for years, but suspicion and outright hostility towards vaccines has really taken hold in certain segments of society this year due the rapid spread of misinformation through social media and the availability of vaccines for COVID,” said Patrick Plues, BIO’s vice president for State Government Affairs. “Vaccines have become politicized to the point where support or opposition to immunization policy has become a litmus test for political affiliations.”

A group of Indiana University Students, represented by a Terre Haute law firm, asked the U.S. Supreme Court Friday to weigh in on the issue for the first time and block a mandate their school is planning to impose.

Experts agree the vaccines are safe and effective at preventing serious cases of COVID-19, but many remain skeptical, especially in Georgia, where 21% of residents are hesitant or unsure about the vaccine, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But as the delta variant sends more patients to Georgia’s hospitals, businesses are considering mandating the vaccine as a way to keep workers healthy and prevent quarantines.

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Piedmont Healthcare is set to become the first Georgia health network to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 1. Delta Air Lines has required all new hires in the U.S. to be vaccinated since May, and Atlanta’s Cox Enterprises has said it will call on employees who enter its headquarters and certain other offices to be vaccinated.

Athens-Clarke County will likely be the first county in the state to impose a vaccination requirement for government employees; its mandate is set to start Sept. 1.

With the session still a quarter of a year away, Beach’s bill is not likely to get in the way of those businesses or others who plan to tell their workers to schedule shots, Kreis said.

“No matter what somebody thinks about the policy or its merits, most of the employers who are going to impose this kind of vaccination requirements are going to do it well before the Legislature meets in January,” he said. “My guess is that the overwhelming majority of employers who want to have that policy will adopt that policy, and the vast majority, if not, every single one of their employees will be vaccinated by that point, with maybe a smattering of folks who are recent employees.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

HOW TO GET VACCINATED: COVID-19 has killed more than 20,000 Georgia residents. Don’t let yourself or your loved ones die from a preventable virus. COVID vaccines are free and widely available statewide without insurance or identification. To find a vaccination location or to schedule an appointment, visit https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.

Photo: Sen. Brandon Beach speaks with a constituent after an April 21, 2021 town hall meeting. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

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