Missouri Republicans to target vaccine requirements, public and private, next session

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Republican lawmakers in Missouri filed a raft of bills targeting COVID-19 vaccine requirements on Wednesday, as health officials remain concerned about a potential post-Thanksgiving spike in cases.

One proposal would bar schools from requiring students to get the vaccine. Several would force businesses like restaurants and concert venues to serve customers who are not vaccinated. At least two bills propose requiring certain exemptions for businesses’ vaccine mandates. Others would allow businesses that mandate the shot for workers to be held liable for “injuries” associated with it.

The General Assembly is scheduled to convene on January 5 and adjourn May 22. The filings indicate that continued resistance to vaccine requirements and other measures intended to mitigate the pandemic will figure prominently during the election-year session. The proposals came the same day that the first U.S. case of the new Omicron variant was discovered, prompting renewed calls from federal health officials for increased vaccination.

Republicans state lawmakers across the country have been pushing to restrict the ability of governments, and sometimes private entities, to require vaccines. The pushback has only grown following executive orders by President Joe Biden implementing vaccine rules for federal contractors, health care workers and a large segment of the private workforce.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, has joined with numerous other states to challenge all three federal mandates in court. All but the federal contractor rule has been temporarily halted; the University of Missouri system is one prominent employer that has said it will require staff to be vaccinated to comply with that rule.

One of the bills pre-filed Wednesday, introduced by Rep. Nick Schroer of O’Fallon, would prohibit those requirements in higher education, potentially putting the UM system in a clash between federal and state law.

Schroer, who is running for state Senate, also is pushing the same ban in public K-12 schools, which do not currently require the COVID vaccine for students. Under his bill, university or school employees could be fined $5,000 for violations.

The bill prevents schools from requiring students or employees get “COVID vaccines or gene therapy treatments.” COVID-19 vaccines are not gene therapy and do not alter the recipient’s DNA.

This past year, Gov. Mike Parson already signed a bill barring governments in Missouri from requiring the COVID vaccine for public services. But next year Republican lawmakers appear intent on placing restrictions on private vaccine mandates as well.

Parson and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce both have stressed they oppose federal vaccine requirements for private business, but that businesses can implement mandates for their own employees.

Several bills would prohibit vaccine requirements for customers of private businesses. Others would implement certain exemptions for those requirements or subject businesses to liability for negative vaccine outcomes — which are rare.

“It’s clear the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t the right choice for all Missourians, but many employers continue to require immunization even for those who have serious concerns about health issues that can result from it,” House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, also of O’Fallon, said in a press release. “In cases where employers refuse to honor the personal freedoms of their employees, they must at the very least be held responsible for the repercussions of their mandate.”

Wiemann’s bill does not specify the proposal would apply only to COVID vaccines. Some private employers, particularly hospitals, routinely require employees to be immunized against the flu and other infectious diseases.

The Chamber of Commerce could not immediately be reached for comment.

Wiemann also wants to require businesses to count natural immunity from previously infected individuals as equivalent to vaccine immunity when devising vaccine rules.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend those who have had COVID still get vaccinated, finding that protection from the virus is more consistent from the vaccine than natural immunity.

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