Ban on local governments, schools and businesses asking for proof of COVID vaccination advances in the Iowa Legislature

Paul Brennan/Little Village

The Iowa House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a bill intended to prohibit so-called “vaccine passports” on Monday. The bill was introduced on Friday, two weeks after Gov. Kim Reynolds called for such legislation.

“I strongly oppose vaccine passports and I believe that we must take a stand as a state against them, which I intend to do either through legislation or executive action,” the governor said during her April 7 news conference.

Of course, vaccine passports do not exist in the United States and the Biden administration has said it will not require Americans to have any sort of COVID-19 vaccination documentation.

“The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a White House news conference the day before Reynolds called on lawmakers to take action. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

The House bill, HF 889, does not reference any potential action by the federal government. Instead it prohibits state agencies from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination, and preempts the authority of any local government body to do so. It also creates penalties for businesses and nonprofits if they require “a customer, patron, client, patient, or other person who is invited onto the premises” to have documentation of vaccination.

The bill only applies to COVID-19 vaccinations. Proof of other vaccinations can still be required if HF 889 becomes law.

“Iowa law requires student verification of proper immunizations against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, and varicella to enroll in school,” as the Iowa City Community School District explains on its website. “At least one dose of each immunization must be given before starting school.”

There are further state-imposed vaccination requirements for students entering seventh grade (meningococcal vaccine, as well as a tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis booster shot) and incoming high school seniors “need proof of two doses of meningococcal (A, C W, Y) vaccine, or one dose if received when the student was 16 years of age or older.”

All three public universities in Iowa require people to submit documentation showing they have had two MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations in order to enroll. But the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa won’t require COVID-19 vaccinations.

On April 14, Iowa Board of Regents President Michael Richards said that “while we continue to strongly encourage members of our campus community to get vaccinated, the regents universities will not be mandating vaccinations for any student [or] employees now or for the 2021-22 academic year.” That same day, however, Grinnell College announced it would require students enrolling in the fall to have proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.

“The efficacy of vaccines, as well as expanded vaccine eligibility and availability, allows us to address the higher risk of transmission in a communal living environment and affirms this additional step to protect the health of our community,” Grinnell told students in an email about the vaccination requirement.

Although a private college, Grinnell would be covered by HF 889. Any private institution — business, schools and nonprofits included — that requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination would be cut off from eligibility for all state grants or contracts if the Legislature approves the bill and Reynolds signs it into law.

The bill contains an exemption for healthcare facilities, which several people speaking during the public comment section of the committee meeting objected to, often using language and distortions of fact common among anti-vaxxers.

Judiciary Committee Chair Rep, Steve Holt, a Republican from Dennison, said he understood why people objected to allowing healthcare facilities to require proof of vaccination, but said the exemption was needed to get the bill through the Iowa Senate.

Holt characterized the bill as means of preserving freedom.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Dennison. Official photo.

“No Iowan should be forced to have a chemical injected into their body against their will, in order to be able to go to a grocery store, attend a baseball game or a movie, or travel freely in our state and our country,” he said. “At the very core of our beliefs as Americans is the right of free men and women to live their lives as they see fit without the heavy hand of government dictating profoundly personal choices.”

Holt did not mention of the vaccination requirements currently in state law.

The vote on Monday was 16-5, and unlike many high-profile bills advanced by the House Judiciary Committee this term, HF 889 did not pass on a party-line vote. One Republican, Rep. Brian Lohse of Bondurant, voted against the bill, and four Democrats voted in favor of it.

“I’m voting for the bill because I have empathy for those who have some very real concerns and very real fears,” Rep. Steve Hansen, a Democrat from Sioux City, said.

Hansen said he hoped passing the bill would ease “the fears of those who desire” a ban on the nonexistent vaccine passports. He also repeated his previously stated support for vaccinations and mask mandates.

Iowa City Rep. Christina Bohannan was another of the Democrats on the committee who supported the bill.

“I don’t think that people should be forced to get a vaccination, particularly when something is still under emergency use authorization,” she said during the committee meeting.

Bohannan also used her time to refute several of the anti-vaxxer talking points used during the public comment period.

Although HF 889 would forbid business owners from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations of any “person who is invited onto the premises,” it would not apply to employees. Employers could still require anyone who works for them to be vaccinated.

Rep. Joe Jacobsen, a Republican from Council Bluffs, offered an amendment to the bill that limits the ability of employers to require workers be vaccinated. It failed on a voice vote. Committee Chair Holt said the amendment may be reintroduced when the bill comes to floor vote in the House.

A Senate version of the bill using the same language as the House bill, SF 610, was introduced in the chamber on Monday. It passed the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.

Normally new bills cannot be taken up this late in a legislative session, but there is an exception for bills that are backed by the leadership in both the House and Senate.

Interestingly, neither of the Republican leaders of the two chambers has been vaccinated against COVID-19 yet.

During an appearance on a Sunday morning news show this week, Leader Jack Whitver of Ankeny said he was wanted to make Iowans at greater risk from the virus get vaccinated before he did.

All Iowans over the age of 16 became eligible for vaccination on April 1, and COVID-19 vaccine supply in Iowa has outpaced demand since then. Two weeks ago, 21 counties declined their scheduled shipments of vaccine, because they still had enough from the previous week. Last week, that number rose to 43. This week, 80 of Iowa’s 99 counties declined the next scheduled shipments of vaccine.

Whitver brushed past the issue of being unvaccinated with an attempt at humor.

“I will get it. My mom will make sure I get it,” the 40-year-old lawmaker said.

During the March 26 episode of Iowa Press, Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Grassley was asked if he has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I’ve chosen not to at this point,” he replied.

Grassley didn’t explain his choice not to be vaccinated, but pressed on whether he will get vaccinated, he said if his unvaccinated status begins to impinge on his lifestyle, he probably will.

“At some point, I’ll probably,” Grassley said. “Assuming it’ll get to the point where we’ll all be required to do it if we want to do any sort of traveling.”

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