Sen. Mike Lee continued his fight in the Senate against President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses, and Utah is geared up to challenge the administration’s new rules released Thursday in court.

Also, Utah Republican legislative leaders, who called Biden “tone-deaf” to a majority of Americans who oppose mandates, want to take steps in a special session this month to counter the federal mandate.

Utahns have made it clear that they expect the state to oppose the mandate and “each of us will act in our capacities to do so,” Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a joint statement.

Lee, R-Utah, introduced the “No Forced Vaccination for COVID-19 Act” aimed at preventing the president or federal agencies from issuing a general vaccine mandate, including one that requires a person to be vaccinated or undergo periodic testing.

“It would end this extraordinary nightmare for millions of Americans and key businesses. It would put this sorry, mean, cruel saga to an end,” he said on the Senate floor.

Lee’s attempt to pass the bill on unanimous consent quickly failed with the objection of Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

Peters said it would be a step backward in the fight against COVID-19, noting there have been 45 million cases and 750,000 deaths in the United States. The country needs to reach a higher vaccination rate and put a stop to the spread, and shouldn’t be “wasting time” on legislation that makes the country less safe.

Lee said it’s not about whether people are against the virus or for the vaccine “because we are.” It’s not appropriate for the government to order people to be fired because they won’t get the vaccine, he said.

“It’s immoral. It’s wrong. It’s without foundation in law,” he said. “This is shameful. I’ll be back, and I won’t stop until we’re finished.”

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In September, Biden announced a plan to get more Americans vaccinated and turn the tide in the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a rule to require employers with 100 or more employees to ensure each of their workers is fully vaccinated or tests negative for the coronavirus at least once a week. It covers 84 million employees, according to the White House.

Also, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a rule to require that health care workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid are fully vaccinated. It covers more than 17 million workers in 76,000 health care facilities around the country.

The deadline for compliance is Jan. 4. Companies that don’t comply could be fined nearly $14,000 per violation.

The rules become official when they’re published in the Federal Register, likely Friday.

Many businesses across the country imposed vaccine mandates on their own after Biden’s September announcement. Those requirements have already reduced the number of eligible unvaccinated Americans by 40% — down from about 100 million to just over 60 million, the White House says.

“There have been no ‘mass firings’ and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements. Despite what some predicted and falsely assert, vaccination requirements have broad public support,” Biden said.

In a letter to Senate Democratic leaders Wednesday, Lee and nine GOP senators say the mandate will have devastating effects on the economy, and listed several places where mandates have already signaled serious problems.

Chicago may lose up to a third of its police force to the city’s vaccine mandate; in New York City, 30% of firefighters were unvaccinated as of Oct. 29, forcing the closure of 26 fire stations; and trucking companies affected by mandates could lose 37% of their workforce, according to the senators.

Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, Biden’s mandate continues to miss the mark on how to encourage vaccination. The new rule will push more Americans to leave their jobs and disincentivize people to join the already struggling workforce, he said.

Another challenge of the mandate is the short — just 60 days — implementation time for businesses, he said, adding it’s 15 days less than the federal government gave itself to adopt a similar vaccine mandate.

“As with any federal mandate on businesses, there are complexities that make this policy difficult to implement. Businesses and the Americans they employ deserve better than this overreaching imposition,” Moore said.

“Yet again, the Biden administration is choosing sweeping mandates over tailored decisions that would help our workforce and economy recover as we work to beat this pandemic.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Biden’s “excessive” mandates have plagued the economy and individual liberty for months. He cited a near-record number of unfilled jobs; workers are being paid to stay at home; the firing of thousands of health care workers, police officers and firefighters; and the nation’s supply chain struggles.

“We need to be removing barriers that allow the private sector to operate efficiently, not creating more of them,” he said. “Sadly, this most recent mandate will only serve to compound our economic challenges.”

How Republicans reacted to President Joe Biden’s vaccination plan for businesses, federal workers

In a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the pandemic Thursday, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he’s concerned about the vaccine mandate for private businesses. He asked the panel if the mandate can save lives and, if so, how many.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, said vaccines saves lives and mandates work, pointing to United Airlines and other companies that have imposed vaccine requirements for employees.

“So if you take the fact that mandates work and vaccines absolutely save lives, the answer to your question is yes, it does save lives,” he said.

Fauci, though, said he couldn’t say how many lives mandates save.

Romney said that information would be helpful for himself and others who are concerned about mandates.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is among two dozen Republican attorneys general who have threatened to sue the government over Biden’s mandate. His office is reviewing the OSHA order and waiting for it to be published in the Federal Register before making its next move.

While a lawsuit plays out in court, Adams said he wants the Utah Legislature to clarify in Utah that businesses must provide religious, medical or personal exemptions to the mandate. He said he’d also like to see an exemption included for “natural immunity” for Utahns who have already had COVID-19 and recovered. 

Biden’s rules already do not apply to people who go to a workplace where others aren’t present, who work remotely from home or work exclusively outdoors. The rules also already include exemptions for workers with sincerely held religious beliefs, disabilities and those with medical conditions that do not allow them to get vaccinated. 

But Adams said he wants the state lawmakers to add extra clarity to federal rules.

“We all want people vaccinated. In my opinion, the Biden mandate is not accomplishing what it meant to do. And I would like to in a special session make sure we use all the efforts we can as a state to allow those exemptions to be a part of the process,” he said. 

Gov. Spencer Cox is expected to call the Legislature into special session starting next Tuesday to consider redistricting maps. A governor’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond when asked whether the agenda would include Biden’s vaccine mandate.

Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson called the president’s directive a “serious mistake” that is likely to exacerbate and broaden public resistance to all vaccines, which may outweigh any marginal benefit in terms of increased population immunity. 

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll last month found Utahns overwhelmingly oppose Biden’s proposed policy.

“Despite promising to shut down the virus, not the economy, the Biden administration is moving forward with its unconstitutional, heavy-handed vaccine mandate, endangering the jobs of Americans in Utah and across the country,” Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, said in a statement. “Fining private employers and making medical decisions on behalf of American citizens does not beat the COVID-19 pandemic, get our economy back on track or instill trust in a safe and effective vaccine.”

Contributing: Katie McKellar