Ohio bills to restrict COVID mask, vaccine mandates stir heavy debate

Debate on most sweeping and prominent measure to begin Tuesday in Ohio General Assembly.

Several bills aimed at blocking mask mandates, vaccine requirements and proof of vaccination against COVID-19 are coming before the Ohio General Assembly when it reconvenes Sept. 8, and area legislators are voicing their general support — or saying nothing.

Most sweeping and prominent is House Bill 248, the Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act introduced by state Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester. Due to recent employee vaccination requirements by hospitals, legislators have moved up debate on the bill to begin Tuesday.

“No person, public official or employee, public agency, state agency, political subdivision, school, child day-care center, nursing home, residential care facility, health care provider, insurer, institution, or employer shall mandate, require, or otherwise request an individual to receive a vaccine,” except under previously existing exemptions, the bill says. Those exemptions are for childhood vaccinations that are already required.

Nor could any of those entities ask a person’s vaccination status, require a vaccine passport or registry, or disclose someone’s vaccination status, except as part of health care or medical billing.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

House Bill 248 would also prohibit businesses from requiring vaccinations or vaccination status disclosure, and from denying service to someone who is not vaccinated or refusing to prove it.

Many health and hospital groups have called the legislation potentially dangerous, making it harder to combat disease outbreaks and ensure safety. The Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce reiterated its stance this week on House Bill 248.

“We strongly believe that employers in the Dayton region, Ohio and across our country should have the freedom to operate their businesses, to make decisions about their workforce and to develop the health and safety policies that meet the needs of their individual workplaces & industries without government interference,” said Chris Kershner, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

State Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, is for the bill, saying she backs “medical freedom.”

Credit: Provided

Credit: Provided

“I really think it’s a personal choice. I would never say to you ‘You need to go get a shot.’ Not my business,” she said, adding that she resents people questioning others about whether they’re vaccinated. “I think it would be helpful if it was just COVID, and I would like to see the bill be just COVID, to be honest, because it’s more unknown than the other vaccines.”

Banning vaccine passports

Rep. Al Cutrona, R–Canfield, introduced HB 253 and 350. The former would ban schools or state agencies from requiring vaccine passports, prohibit them from blocking entry to their buildings based on someone’s vaccination status, and prevent private companies that develop vaccine passports from sharing or selling medical information they collect.

Its cosponsors include area Reps. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, Carruthers, Bill Dean, R-Xenia, Brian Lampton, R-Beavercreek, Jena Powell, R–Arcanum, Tom Young, R-Washington Twp., and Paul Zeltwanger, R–Mason.

House Bill 350 would block businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or demanding proof of such vaccination. It exempts healthcare providers from that ban — but specifies the exemption only applies to COVID-19 vaccines fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Thus far all such vaccines have only received emergency authorization, though full approval of the Pfizer vaccine may come soon.

Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, introduced Senate Bills 169 and 209. The former would prohibit vaccination mandates, specifically for “a coronavirus,” and requiring proof of vaccination. Sen. George Lang, R-West Chester, is a cosponsor.

The latter bill seeks to ban state and local school districts from requiring anyone to wear a facial covering in a school.

The state mandated masks in schools during the 2020–21 school year, but that has ended. For the 2021-22 school year, a few local districts — including Dayton — are requiring masks but for most it’s only a recommendation.

Related moves

Some state-level opposition and relevant federal announcements may affect, or render irrelevant, parts of the proposed bills.

At a press conference Aug. 17, Gov. Mike DeWine urged vaccination for all eligible children and urged school districts to require mask wearing. Citing a high and rising number of cases and the more contagious Delta variant, he announced his opposition to HB 248 and SB 209 but said he opposed vaccine mandates.

So far, Ohio has reported more than 1 million cases, about one Ohioan out of 10, and more than 20,000 deaths. About half of Ohio’s population has been vaccinated, and most of the current spread — and hospitalization — is among the unvaccinated.

In February, legislators limited DeWine’s power to issue health orders and mandates, passing Senate Bill 22 over his veto. Even so, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democratic candidate for governor, called on DeWine this week to mandate masks in K–12 schools.

President Joe Biden announced Aug. 18 that all nursing home employees must be vaccinated or the facilities will lose Medicare/Medicaid funding. He also said the U.S. Department of Education could take legal action against governors who sought to block local school districts from requiring masks.

Legislators’ positions

Many of the 16-member regional legislative delegation did not comment on the bills, though a few initially agreed to. Reps. Willis Blackshear Jr., D–Dayton, Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp., Scott Lipps, R–Franklin, Phil Plummer, R–Butler Twp., Powell, Andrea White, R–Kettering and Young did not respond with comments. Nor did Sen. Bob Hackett, R–London, or Sen. Steve Huffman, R–Tipp City.

Carruthers said she’s not convinced masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and opposes requiring them in schools.

“I don’t feel that children learn in them, no,” she said.

She knows some businesses oppose limitations on their vaccination policies but thinks allowing businesses — especially healthcare facilities — to make vaccination mandatory will cost them employees.

“I think that’s very wrong. We need all of the people in the hospitals that we possibly can, as far as nurses and doctors and administrators,” Carruthers said.

Carruthers blamed media and state and federal administrations for “very confusing” messaging, and questioned reported numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Creech said via email that he is “in support of HB 248 and supports vaccine choice.” He referred further to his Facebook page, on which he has voiced support for health care workers refusing employer requirements for vaccination.

Dean, who made a point of saying he’s not vaccinated, said mask wearing and vaccination should remain a matter of personal choice.

“I think basically businesses need to do what they think what is right for their employees, and at the same time they need to give exemptions, health exemptions or religious exemptions or whatever,” he said. Dean acknowledged that could create a dilemma for employees who don’t want to work with others who are unmasked or unvaccinated.

“We just have to work all that out, hopefully without too much trouble,” he said.

Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, in a statement issued through staff, said he is monitoring HB 253 and SB 209 but is unable to take a position until he sees final versions because many changes may occur in committee.

“In the end, it is the parents who should have the final say in the medical decisions made for their children,” the statement says. “Whether it be the choice to vaccinate or not, or to require their children to wear a mask or not.”

Rep. Zeltwanger said he reads scientific studies and bases his opinions on those. What he’s read leads him to doubt the effectiveness of masks, and data on COVID-19 vaccines is “still coming in,” he said.

“My general comment is, I’m always going to err on the side of liberty and freedom, but also going to err on the side of science,” Zeltwanger said. “I believe in choice for everyone.”

Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, said there should always be a “conscience exemption” for vaccination.

“I do believe that state and local governments should not be able to require vaccines,” he said. “I do think we have to be careful about employer rights; but that said, at this point with COVID-19 I do oppose mandatory vaccines and vaccine passports.”

Other reactions

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce issued a statement opposing HB 248 as violating employers’ rights under Ohio’s at-will employment laws, which allow employers to dismiss workers for any reason.

“It’s ironic that, since the beginning of the pandemic, many of the same lawmakers who have been pushing back against what they see as government overreach are the ones now calling for more government controls on business,” Ohio Chamber President and CEO Steve Stivers said. “No legislator can claim to be pro-business and at the same time support efforts to restrict an employer’s ability to manage their workplace free from government interference. The Ohio Chamber is simply asking for them to be consistent.”

Several education-related groups have not taken official positions on the proposals but say blanket prohibitions appear to violate principles of local control through boards of education.

“This is not an environment where one size fits all. Like much in education, ‘one size fits all’ is not the best choice, I believe,” said Will Schwartz, lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association.

Proposed Ohio COVID-19 legislation

House Bill 248: Would prohibit mandatory vaccinations, vaccination status disclosures, and certain other actions regarding vaccinations.

House Bill 253: Would prohibit proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Senate Bill 209: Would prohibit mask mandates by public schools, colleges and businesses.

House Bill 350: Would prohibit mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination, and certain other actions relating to an individual’s COVID-19 vaccination or health status and to declare an emergency.

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