SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to bar government agencies from requiring Utah employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations (except for health workers who need the vaccine to work) won bipartisan approval from the Utah House of Representatives on Monday.
The House voted 66-2 to approve Rep. Robert Spendlove’s HB308. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
“The purpose of this bill is to find the right balance between public health and personal liberty,” Spendlove, R-Sandy, said on the House floor before the vote.
Spendlove called the COVID-19 vaccine a “miracle and a wonderful thing for our society” amid the pandemic still gripping the world after almost a year.
“But at the same time, we have to acknowledge it was developed very quickly and under a year,” Spendlove added, noting that most vaccines usually take about four years to develop.
“So while we want to be encouraging everyone to get a vaccine, while we want to be educating people about the benefits of getting the COVID vaccine, we don’t want to be mandating from the government that people receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” Spendlove said.
Although Spendlove said he hasn’t heard of “any specific ideas” that any government agencies would mandate the vaccine, his bill seeks to “proactively set those limitations on how far we as a state are willing to go.”
“While we will continue to encourage and continue to educate, we will not mandate that people will receive this vaccine,” Spendlove said.
Spendlove’s bill would ban mandates from all branches of government, including cities and counties, but does not step into the realm of the private sector — so it would leave the door open for private business owners to mandate the vaccine for their employees.
Gov. Spencer Cox last week said he’s “never been interested” in mandating vaccines and doesn’t think a mandate would be necessary given Utahns’ increasing acceptance of the vaccine.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released Sunday showed just 12% of Utahns insist they’re never getting vaccinated against COVID-19, The poll shows more than a third of Utahns say they want to get vaccinated as soon as possible, while another 25% say they’ve already gotten their shots.
Connor Boyack, president of the Utah-based libertarian think tank Libertas Institute, backed the bill in a House committee last week, saying it would act as “more of a reassurance to the public” that government isn’t interested in mandating vaccines.
“Ultimately while no one is intending for now to do this, we live in the age of mandates and executive orders in response to this prolonged emergency,” Boyack said. “So I think a lot of people would like to take this option off the table and make clear no one is planning on doing this and just reassure the public in that regard, which may then help in the broader education efforts to encourage people voluntarily to obtain the vaccine.”
In that same committee, Sara Jones with the Utah Education Association opposed the bill, arguing its language that government could not “directly or indirectly” mandate the vaccine is “extremely broad and could have some unintended consequences.”
“COVID-19 is transmitted by community spread, so employers need to be able to rely on the guidance of public health authorities to implement strategies to navigate the impact and direct threat that COVID-19 could pose to the health of employees in the workplace,” Jones said.
For example, Jones said the Utah Education Association worries the bill would prohibit a school from “temporarily assigning a nonvaccinated employee to work remotely if the school is located in a community where transmission rates are considered dangerously high.”
“We support the idea we should not and could not mandate vaccination, but not to restrict employees from being able to then manage the safety and health of their workplace,” Jones said.
On the House floor, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, asked Spendlove whether the “directly or indirectly” provision in the bill would prohibit a mandate for a vaccine in situations like public transportation.
Spendlove said it would. Nelson didn’t ask any more questions or make any additional comments, but voted against the bill. Only Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, joined Nelson in voting against the bill.