Bill to ban most vaccine mandates in Utah passes both houses of Legislature

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ST. GEORGE — A bill that would make it illegal in Utah for public entities like businesses and government agencies to restrict people and employees based on their vaccination status has now passed both houses of the Utah Legislature and is heading to the governor.

File photo shows protesters opposing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers at Intermountain Hospitals. A bill currently headed to the governor’s desk bans vaccine mandates for most businesses and government entities, though it has exemptions that would keep such mandates in place at hospitals like St. George Regional Hospital, St. George, Utah, Nov. 6, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Vaccine Passport Prohibition, or HB 131, cleared the Utah Senate Wednesday after a 19-5 vote with five abstentions. It was a party-line vote with all Republicans voting for the bill and all Democrats voting against it. 

Of Southern Utah’s senators, three of the four voted yes with Sen. Don Ipson, R-Washington County, absent. 

The legislation will, with some exemptions, keep businesses and other public places in Utah from requiring employees or patrons to be vaccinated for any disease. Supporters say it brings Utah law back to pre-COVID pandemic policy and protects people from having to divulge their health status.

Opponents have said the move would either allow the government too much control in directing businesses to whom they could deny entry or, as some health experts worth, it might propagate the spread of disease. 

The bill was created last year by St. George Republican Rep. Walt Brooks, and after having to pull that bill from the Senate after some changes in the last day of the session, this year’s version of the bill passed with two weeks to spare.

Sen. Michael Kennedy, R-Utah County, who like last year was the Senate floor sponsor of the bill, said during consideration of the bill at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday the fact that the bill has had more than one go-through on the Senate floor has made the bill a better one. 

“There’s a lot of half-baked ideas around the Capitol, but it’s nice to have one that has been baked and examined through two sessions,” said Kennedy, who complimented the work Brooks has done with supporters and opponents of the bill. “Rep. Brooks has worked with a variety of entities. And while I know there are still concerns, I’m impressed by this work.”

Utah state legislators representing Southern Utah, known as the “Sunshine Caucus.” (L-R) Rep. Colin Jack, Rep. Walt Brooks, Rep. R. Neil Walter, Rep. Joseph Elison, Sen. Evan Vickers, Sen. Don Ipson, Sen. Derrin Owens, Salt Lake City, Jan. 19, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Rep. Joseph Elison, St. George News

One of those concerns was brought up by minority whip Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Salt Lake County, who asked Kennedy for reassurance that among exemptions in the bill are those that will allow schools and universities to require vaccinations.

“Schools have required vaccinations for generations and that doesn’t change,” Kennedy said.  

The bill also has exemptions for medical facilities and providers, as well as those who handle medical waste and other hazardous materials. 

The bill passed the Utah House by a 60-13 vote on Jan. 30, with all six of Southern Utah’s representatives voting yes.

Gov. Spencer Cox has not indicated whether he would sign the bill.

However, he said in September 2021 during a taping of his monthly PBS Utah press conference that a separate bill to prevent a business from forcing employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was “dead on arrival” and “a mandate not to allow businesses to have mandates is a mandate in and of itself.”

The comment was made during one of the more contagious months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current bill two years later applies to all vaccines, not just those to prevent COVID-19. 

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2023 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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