OKLAHOMA CITY — Battle lines are being drawn as Republican leaders vow to fight President Biden’s new vaccine mandates, and Oklahoma’s top business advocacy group said it wouldn’t be surprised if the policy faces additional legal challenges from the private sector.
Oklahoma public schools, counties and municipalities, meanwhile, continued to grapple Monday with whether the White House’s new COVID-19 requirements governing employers with 100 or more employees applies to them.
In a written plan unveiled last week, the White House said it plans to require “all employers” with 100 or more employees to ensure everyone is vaccinated against COVID-19. Unvaccinated employees will be required to provide a negative test at least weekly. It requires vaccinations for all federal workers and federal contractors. It will require vaccinations for more than 17 million employees at hospitals and other health care facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement. It would require entertainment venues to require vaccination or testing in order to enter. And, employers would be required to provide paid time off to get vaccinated.
Some estimate the new requirements could impact as many as two-thirds of the nation’s workforce.
The Oklahoma State Chamber, the state’s largest business advocacy group, said it opposes the vaccine mandate.
“Mandates are not good for business,” said Chad Warmington, president and CEO. “Forcing businesses in either direction, whether to require or not require a vaccine, is setting a dangerous ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”
He said regardless of size, employers should be allowed to make organization-specific decisions on vaccination policies, and Warmington said he expects legal challenges from the private sector.
“This vaccine mandate will place our nation in uncharted territory by requiring a uniform approach across the myriad of social, cultural and geographic differences of businesses and their employees across the nation,” he said.
John O’Connor, the state’s newly-appointed Republican attorney general, said he’s preparing litigation to challenge Biden’s vaccine requirements because he said he respects the right of Oklahoma businesses and individuals to make health care decisions for themselves.
“My office will vigorously oppose any attempt by the federal government to mandate vaccines. We are preparing litigation to stand up for our rights and defend the rule of law against the overreach of the federal government.”
Oklahoma public schools, which are political subdivisions, are not subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, so they would not be subject to these new mandates, said Christy Watson, spokeswoman with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. Biden is planning to run the emergency rules through OSHA. She said the group has been fielding a lot of questions about the new policy.
However, a number of public schools located outside of Oklahoma could be subject to the mandates depending on how they’re structured, she said.
“We don’t think it’s legally binding on counties within the state of Oklahoma,” said Gene Wallace, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of County Commissioners. He said counties are considered a political subdivision under the state constitution, and there’s no indication that the mandate applies to state employees, so county employees would presumably be treated the same.
“That could change tomorrow, but right now we don’t have any indication that it could apply to the state or any political subdivisions,” Wallace said.
The Oklahoma Municipal League did not immediately return a message seeking comment as of deadline.
State Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who serves as state Senate president pro tem, described the mandates as “a gross overreach.”
“I support our state’s effort to protect Oklahoma employers and employees from this federal mandate,” Treat said. “The vaccines are safe and effective, but it should remain a choice for each of us to decide whether to get vaccinated. The federal government should not interfere in the decision-making of a private business (regarding) the steps it takes to protect the health and safety of its employees and customers.”
Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the State Medical Association, said that the group continues “to stand strongly for COVID-19 vaccination and mitigation efforts,” but didn’t address the issue of a mandate.
“Regardless of any mandate, we encourage all eligible Oklahomans to get vaccinated,” she said. “It is the safest and most effective way to combat this deadly virus while protecting themselves, their loved ones and those around them.”
The state Hospital Association declined to comment on the new Biden policies.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said Republicans are to blame for the new mandates. In Oklahoma, they passed burdensome legislation that hamstrung local officials’ ability to implement policies that protects children, she said.
“I understand that nobody likes a mandate, but if Republicans want to find someone to blame for the president’s actions, they should look in the mirror,” Virgin said.
She said as Republicans across the country continue “to play political games” hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans have been infected by COVID and many have died.
“On top of the inaction from the last seven months, Americans have been forced to parse through misinformation and lies pushed by an extremist faction of the Republican Party,” she said. “We have had to do so while Republicans that know better have remained silent out of fear of upsetting their fellow party members.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.