Alternative Ohio bill would prevent government-required COVID-19 vaccinations

Legislation proposed by Rep. Kyle Koehler would not stop businesses from requiring vaccines.

The most sweeping bill in the Ohio General Assembly to ban COVID-19 vaccination requirements, sponsored by state Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, seems to have stalled. So another area legislator, state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, is introducing an alternative that would give a pass to private businesses.

Early this year Gross introduced the Vaccine Choice and Anti-Discrimination Act, or House Bill 248, which would ban governments, schools, childcare facilities, healthcare facilities from requiring vaccination or urging people to be vaccinated. It doesn’t specify COVID-19 vaccination, but the ban does exempt requirements for the dozen mandatory childhood vaccinations.

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.

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.

The House Health Committee held hours of hearings on the bill over the summer, but took no action.

Business groups lobbied against HB 248, arguing that businesses should be free to set their own policies and that the bill violates employers’ rights under Ohio’s at-will employment laws, which allow employers to dismiss workers for any reason.

“I spent the summer listening to testimony on 248,” Koehler said. “After listening to those (testimonies), the one thing I heard more than anything is that government should not be mandating vaccines.”

He said it appears HB 248 doesn’t have enough support to get out of committee. Gross has filed a discharge petition to bring HB 248 to the House floor without committee approval, but that requires 50 signatures – and at last count, had only six, Koehler said.

Neither Gross nor Health Committee chair Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, responded to messages seeking comment Monday.

Koehler said his bill should be assigned a number this week. It would prevent Ohio governments and government-run entities, such as schools and universities, from requiring COVID-19 vaccination or requiring proof of vaccination. Those entities couldn’t punish employees for lack of vaccination or proof.

Unlike HB 248, Koehler’s bill would not extend the same prohibition to private businesses.

“There are folks on the far right that want all vaccine requirements eliminated,” he said. “There are folks on the left that say I shouldn’t be stopping the state government from requiring vaccines.”

Most of Ohio’s 14 public universities are requiring vaccination for students and employees, and the Inter-University Council of Ohio opposes the restriction either HB 248 or Koehler’s bill would place upon them, said the group’s President and CEO Bruce Johnson.

“The general proposition ought to be that public universities and their trustees, that are appointed by the governor, should be given the opportunity to make those decisions on how to best protect their students,” he said. “We just think that the alternative is probably going to be ‘send them home,’ and that’s just not healthy for anybody.”

All vaccine requirements in Ohio already have three exemptions, Johnson said: for medical conditions, religious beliefs or “strongly held philosophical beliefs.” The universities’ policies on COVID-19 vaccination means students would either need to get vaccinated or register one of those exemptions, he said.

Koehler’s bill, like HB 248, would not affect the longstanding requirement for childhood vaccinations.

“It is specifically COVID-only, because that is what people are most concerned about today,” he said. Constituents tell him they’re still concerned about COVID-19 vaccines, and are asking for a “pause;” but his bill’s prohibitions on vaccine requirements end after two years, giving time for those concerns to be addressed, Koehler said.

And it reinstates a civil immunity provision for frontline workers passed last year in HB 606.

“That was temporary, and it expires on Sept 30,” Koehler said.

HB 606, which Gov. Mike DeWine signed in September 2020, gave civil immunity to people, schools, healthcare providers and businesses from lawsuits over COVID-19 transmission so long as they were not showing “reckless, intentional, or willful misconduct.”

Several other bills related to COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements are in legislative committees. They also target governments, schools and in some cases private businesses, but none goes as far as HB 248.

So far, Ohio has recorded nearly 1.4 million cases of COVID-19, about one Ohioan in every eight, and more than 21,000 deaths. About half of Ohio’s population has been fully vaccinated, and most of the current spread — and hospitalization — is among the unvaccinated.

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