Two women protest vaccine mandates Aug. 24 outside a hearing at the Statehouse on legislation that would outlaw the practice from employers. (Graham Stokes/Freelance Photographer)
For the second time in three months, House Speaker Bob Cupp halted legislation Wednesday aimed to limit the ability of employers, colleges, hospitals and others to impose vaccine mandates.
Cupp’s announcement came amid a flurry of private caucus meetings, unseen proposed amendments, aggressive lobbying tactics and tense rhetoric from members on a heated issue focused on a minority of Ohioans who continue to abstain from vaccination amid a pandemic that has killed more than 719,000 Americans.
The legislation started big and shrunk over time: Its first iteration spanned all vaccines against a long list of preventable diseases; made no exceptions for vulnerable spaces like nursing homes and hospitals; blocked vaccine incentive programs; and in some instances, even blocked people from asking one another about their vaccination status.
House leaders, including Cupp, then put forth what was intended to be a compromise bill. It offered more latitude for hospitals to impose vaccine mandates; allowed employers to require vaccination for new hires but not current employees; and allowed colleges to impose mandates (but forced them to accept “conscience” exemptions, a catch-all workaround).
On Tuesday, Cupp said the plan was to accept more than a dozen amendments before passing the bill Wednesday. However, by Wednesday afternoon, it became increasingly clear that Republicans couldn’t come to any agreement.
In a statement shortly before Wednesday’s floor session, Cupp imposed the second “pause” in three months and the third last-minute abortion of a vote on the troubled legislation.
“After countless hours of hearings and deliberation on this topic, there is still no consensus on how or whether to move forward,” he said. “Consequently, the House at this time will pause additional hearings on this matter. We are continuing our work on other legislative matters that are important to Ohio and its people.”
Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Twp., a lead sponsor of the compromise legislation, offered similar comment before Wednesday’s floor session.
“We don’t have the votes,” he said.
Republicans faced opposition on the proposal from usual adversaries on COVID-19 issues like Democrats, the public health community and private health care businesses; however, the typically business-friendly caucus faced more unexpected opposition from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, who said its member businesses didn’t want government dictating terms of employment.
They originally found support from anti-vaccine advocates like Health Freedom Ohio, Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, or Moms Against DeWine; however, their members turned into opponents once House leadership began to talk of compromise.
Activists protested outside the personal residence of House Health Chairman Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, who used to closely align with the groups. Carfagna confirmed that some of their members protested outside a local Italian restaurant bearing his name, which he said he has no ownership stake in.
“I don’t find it particularly persuasive,” he said.
Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, said he doesn’t believe anyone should be forced to take a vaccine that they don’t want. However, he said he opposed the original, expansive bill proposed by Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester Twp., comparing it to “socialism” for telling businesses how to treat employees. He called the compromise proposal “brilliant” but said the proposed amendments were taking it in the wrong direction.
“I don’t support socialism,” he said. (Gross didn’t respond to an inquiry.)
Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, voted for the compromise legislation in House Health Committee, before it was unexpectedly pulled from a floor vote and sent to another committee last week. After Wednesday’s session, he said some members opted to let the “perfect be the enemy of the good,” leading the legislation to its doom.
Ohio has the 10th lowest vaccination rate of any state in the U.S., according to a tracker from the New York Times. Just 55% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.
The political fight in Ohio underscores a bigger trend: GOP support for vaccine mandates, which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905 and have been an aspect of public school enrollment for decades, has plummeted. About 85% of Democrats support mandatory vaccination for schools, compared to 46% of Republicans, according to an October YouGov poll of 1,500 Americans. While Democratic support dropped 6% since August 2020, Republican support dropped 13% in the same time frame.
Steve Stivers, president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement he appreciated the decision to pause proceedings on the bill. He said market forces “will more appropriately reward or punish companies” based on their vaccine policy than legislation.
Leo Almeida, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society Action Network, said it relies on its right to make decisions in the best interests of its employees and its cancer patients (who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and cannot always receive vaccinations).
“Passage of this type of legislation would put the health of those who have battled cancer and the over 73,000 Ohioans who will be diagnosed this year at greater risk,” he said.
In a press conference after Wednesday’s action, Cupp avoided specifics as to the future of vaccine mandate legislation in Ohio but said the lack of action doesn’t mean the nearly 10 hearings on the issue were a waste of time.
“We will be moving on to other topics now,” he said.
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