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Thursday January 27th, 2022 12:59PM

Partisan divide on COVID policy widens in state legislatures

By The Associated Press
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — In Democratic-led Washington state, just four lawmakers were present in the 98-member House this week as they convened a mostly remote session with an abundance of caution. Anyone working there is required to be tested for COVID-19 three days a week and show proof of vaccination — including a booster shot — to step onto the House floor.

By contrast, Missouri's Republican-led Legislature began a fully in-person session with no COVID-19 screening at the Capitol and no requirement to be vaccinated or wear masks. One week into their session, lawmakers already have filed nearly three dozen bills banning, discouraging or providing exemptions from vaccination requirements.

The differing approaches highlight a persistent partisan gap in pandemic policy as states begin a third year of legislative sessions amid a virus outbreak that many had assumed would be waning but is instead surging to near peak levels of hospitalizations because of the omicron variant.

As lawmakers in some Democratic-led states meet remotely because of renewed COVID-19 concerns, their counterparts in many Republican-led legislatures are beginning their 2022 sessions on a quest to outlaw vaccine mandates and roll back pandemic precautions.

“We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who described the “intellectual schism” as “very disturbing.”

“In many ways, the data around vaccines, masks and all these things is kind of bearing out as a proxy for the role of government,” Benjamin said.

The political divisions that began over government-ordered shutdowns, social distancing and mask mandates in the early stages of the pandemic have progressed as governments have shifted to vaccinations as a primary means of a combating a virus that has killed more than 835,000 in the U.S.

Republican legislation opposing vaccine mandates has been spurred largely by rules from President Joe Biden's administration requiring COVID-19 vaccinations or regular testing for large and medium-sized employers, health care providers and federal contractors. Many Democratic governors also have issued vaccine or testing requirements for government workers, heath care facilities, schools or child-care providers.

Though not always preventing illness, vaccines have proved effective at decreasing severe COVID-19 cases leading to hospitalization or death. Republican objections are rooted largely in libertarian ideology.

“To have something injected into your body as a condition of employment lest you be fired or not hired, well it’s not American," said Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican from Branson. "It tends toward socialism, communism and whatever other -ism you want to talk about.”

Seitz has filed bills barring vaccine mandates for health workers, prohibiting governments from doing business with entities requiring vaccinations and creating an individual right to refuse to be vaccinated and wear masks. Other Missouri bills would bar COVID-19 vaccine mandates in schools and hold employers liable for any injuries arising from their vaccination requirements.

Similar bills are pending elsewhere. After passing legislation last November making it easier for employees to refuse to comply with vaccine mandates, some conservative Republicans in the Kansas Legislature now want to go further and prohibit employers from imposing such mandates.

Vaccine legislation has sparked internal divisions in some Republican-led states.

Legislation on a fast-track in the Indiana House would sharply limit COVID-19 vaccination requirements in workplaces, though Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP Senate leaders have opposed the bill as wrongly interfering with private business decisions. Some Republican lawmakers in Ohio also have continued pushing for a ban on vaccine mandates, despite a warning from fellow GOP Gov. Mike DeWine that he would veto the legislation.

The question of whether to prohibit businesses from mandating vaccines also is expected to be a hot topic when the Oklahoma Legislature convenes next month.

“The issue is a hard one to balance for people," said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican. “I believe very much in the right of the individual, and I also believe very much in the right of businesses to conduct business as they see fit.”

Though it received a hearing Tuesday, legislation from a Maine Republican to prohibit mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for five years faces steep odds in that state's Democratic-led Legislature. The hearing was held via video conference — a practice that appears more common this year in Democratic-led states than Republican ones.

The 400-member New Hampshire House convened last week in a hotel expo center instead of its chamber to spread out lawmakers, but the Republican majority refused to allow remote participation. At least two lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 after the first days of session.

Former New Hampshire House Speaker Dick Hinch was among eight lawmakers in various states to die from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. More than 500 state lawmakers have been sickened by the virus, according to an Associated Press tally, though the actual number almost certainly is higher because some legislatures haven't publicly confirmed cases.

In Democratic-led Massachusetts, the capitol has yet to reopen to the public after legislative leaders shuttered the building to all but lawmakers, some staff and the press at the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, the Legislature has largely gone online. Legislative leaders have announced plans to inch toward a reopening by requiring proof of vaccination — or show a medical or religious exemption — to work in the building.

In Vermont's Democratic-led Legislature, one of the first acts of 2022 was to authorize remote sessions because of spiking COVID-19 cases. Lawmakers also quickly passed a measure allowing municipal governments and school districts to pass budgets without in-person meetings.

In Washington state, Republicans voted against the COVID-19 protocols adopted by Democratic-led legislative committees. While allowing more members on the floor than the House, the Senate policy caps in-person attendance at 15 of the 49 senators. The rest are relegated to participating remotely. Senators and staff must test negative for COVID-19 before entering Senate rooms, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. Since Friday, at least five senators have tested positive.

The goal of the restrictions “is to make the operation of the Senate as safe as possible,” said Washington Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig.

___

Associated Press writers Tom Davies in Indianapolis; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont; Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio; and Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

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