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What do Utahns think about President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for large businesses? Answers in a new poll

Nurse Jon Hight draws a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at the Salt Lake Public Health Center on Sept. 30, 2021.
Nurse Jon Hight draws a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at the Salt Lake Public Health Center on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

While businesses in Utah and across the country continue to wait for details and the official implementation of President Joe Biden’s private sector vaccine mandate rules announced last month, a new survey shows Utahns are overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed policy.

The Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of Utah voters shows 62% of respondents somewhat or strongly oppose the mandate, while 37% of those polled said they were in somewhat or strong support of the Biden proposal.

The new Utah data runs counter to national polling conducted shortly after Biden unveiled the plan, which showed a clear majority of U.S. workers in favor of the requirements. While few details were shared in the president’s Sept. 9 announcement, the mandates will include requiring all U.S. businesses with 100 or more employees to require those workers to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face weekly testing for the virus.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said the new poll results reflect that a clear majority of Utahns are in support of his own stance, that the Biden vaccine mandates represent an inappropriate intrusion into the free market.

“Like most Utahns, we agree that President Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses is an overreach,” Cox said in a statement. “We firmly believe that employers should be able to decide what is best for their companies, according to free market principles.”

The poll showed a clear split between Republicans and Democrats on the issue. Among respondents who identified themselves as Republicans, 76% oppose Biden’s mandate. Conversely, 78% of Democrats support it.

Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll of 746 registered Utah voters from Oct. 14-21. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.54 percentage points.

As the wait for details on Biden’s plan continues, his administration has outlined that the rules would cover about 100 million workers or two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, with about 80 million of those employed by private sector businesses.

And, businesses that fail to comply with the get-vaccinated-or-get-tested policy could face penalties of up to $14,000 per violation.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is tasked with constructing the vaccine mandate plan which it will issue as an emergency temporary standard implementing the new requirements.

At a media availability Wednesday, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, expressed his frustration with the Biden plan as well as how long it’s taking for OSHA to disclose details on the new rules. He also noted the state’s response would be immediate and unequivocal.

“It’s remarkable to me that it can take this long to do something this simple,” Wilson said. “Assuming that (the Biden plan) comes out, expect a swift and very clear response from our state and the courts relative to what we think is clearly overreach from the federal government into businesses ... and their responsibilities to manage their own employees without government interference.”

That the Biden mandate, once officially launched, will encounter immediate legal challenges appears to be a lock.

Just weeks after Biden announced his plan, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office confirmed it is among a group of states poised to take legal action when the vaccine mandate rules become official.

Reyes and 23 other state attorneys general sent a letter to Biden urging him to reconsider the “unlawful and harmful” vaccine mandate plan or face a legal backlash.

“Your plan is disastrous and counterproductive,” the letter reads. “From a policy perspective, this edict is unlikely to win hearts and minds — it will simply drive further skepticism.

“And at least some Americans will simply leave the job market instead of complying. This will further strain an already-too-tight labor market, burdening companies and (therefore) threatening the jobs of even those who have received vaccines.”

Wilson said the lag between Biden’s vaccine mandate announcement and the actual implementation of the new rules is itself having negative consequences for Utah business owners.

“Businesses thrive in an environment where there is consistency and certainty,” Wilson said. “When government does what it’s doing right now, creating lack of certainty and all this volatility, it’s really hard for businesses to create good jobs for people and to have a stable place for people to work.

“Government shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not the role of government to cause chaos in our economy and that’s what it’s doing.”

As to how big a role, if any, government agencies should take when it comes to incentivizing or mandating COVID-19 vaccines, participants in the poll had mixed responses though a plurality of Utahns, 37%, said state leaders “should take no action” to encourage residents to get vaccinated.

Other survey results show 24% of participants support Utah leaders offering incentives to eligible residents who get vaccinated; 17% support actions by state leaders to encourage businesses or private organizations to mandate vaccines, and 14% of poll respondents believe state leaders should issue a vaccine mandate for all Utahns.

The survey data on Utah voters’ feelings about the Biden mandate plan mirrors much of the sentiment in the state’s business community, according to Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller.

“When I see the nearly two-thirds of your poll respondents opposing the mandate for private businesses, that doesn’t surprise me,” Miller said in an interview. “That’s certainly in line with what I’ve heard back from our members.

“I would add that (Chamber members) positions aren’t a reflection that they’re against vaccinations, it’s that they don’t like the mandate.”

Miller said business owners across the country and in Utah are responding in different ways as they wait for the Biden plan to become an official mandate.

“After the announcement you saw some companies who decided, ‘OK, we’re just going to go ahead and implement our own mandates now,’” Miller said. “On the other hand, a lot of business owners said, ‘Hey, that’s just not right.’”

Miller also noted the uncertainty many business owners are facing while they wait for vaccine mandate details will not just disappear once the rules go into effect.

“The current ambiguity will not be settled even after the rules are put out there because there will be immediate legal challenges,” Miller said. “Beside coming from states’ attorney generals and business groups, I’m sure there will also be some individual businesses that challenge the policy.”

While it appears no state agencies are tracking which Utah businesses are launching their own vaccine mandates ahead of any new federal rules, two of Utah’s largest private employers, Intermountain Healthcare and University Health, have issued their own vaccine mandates.

But those health care providers are responding to another part of Biden’s six-point vaccine plan that calls for all U.S. Medicare- and Medicaid-certified facilities to implement the mandates or risk losing funding from those programs.

“There is no higher priority for us than patient health and safety. As the delta variant strengthens, the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to doing everything we can to keep patients, and those who care for them, safe,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement last month. “There is no question that staff, across any health care setting, who remain unvaccinated pose both direct and indirect threats to patient safety and population health.”

Contributing: Katie McKellar