Teton County lawmakers consider special session on vaccine mandates a 'waste of time’

JACKSON — When Wyoming legislators convene today, they are expected to discuss a flurry of vaccine-related bills that Jackson’s representatives say are a waste of time and energy.

“I think we’ve been unnecessarily focused on fighting vaccine requirements instead of actually doing the best for public health, which is encouraging people to get vaccines and trying to educate people where they are most hesitant,” Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, told the Jackson Hole Daily. “For me, it’s just misdirected energies.”

The special session was called to fight President Biden’s proposed rule mandating that employers with at least 100 workers require their employees to get vaccinated or produce weekly test results showing they are COVID-19-free. 

White House officials at the Office of Management and Budget are reviewing the rule, which is expected to take effect once the review is complete. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is tasked with enforcing the new rule.

Wyoming Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, who also represents portions of Teton County, said he believed the session would help alleviate constituents’ concerns.

“Countless Wyoming citizens fear losing their livelihoods because they object to receiving a COVID‑19 vaccination for reasons of personal conscience, religious conviction or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID‑19,” reads House Bill No. HB1002, which Dockstader co-sponsored.

Previously imposed vaccine mandates include opt-out options which allow vaccine-wary people to submit to regular COVID testing instead of getting the shot; OSHA will likely adopt similar protocols. Because the details of the nationwide vaccine policy remain undecided, certain lawmakers in Wyoming see this week’s special session as unnecessary.

Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, called it “a total waste of time.”

“I know a lot of my Republican friends who were not in favor of the special session, and they’re not in favor of passing a lot of the legislation that we’re hearing,” he said. “The reaction is about the federal mandate [and] there isn’t one yet.”

Both Schwartz and Yin expressed concern about bills barring businesses from imposing a vaccine mandate.

So far in Teton County, the Center for the Arts requires all of its guests to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is requiring vaccinations for all of its workers living in employee housing or employed in childcare. The valley’s other big employers, Teton County School District No. 1 and St. John’s Health, have not required vaccines for staff. The hospital currently has about 155 unvaccinated employees out of 830 total workers.

In a competitive hiring landscape, some business owners have expressed concern that localized mandates will drive unvaccinated staff members away. For Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, who owns Jedediah’s Catering and Concessions, it’s more a matter of life or death.

“I was talking about getting my employees vaccinated long before the President mentioned it to me because I want my employees to be safe. And I want my customers to be safe,” Gierau told the Daily.

He is also drawing from personal experience with the virus.

“I got COVID as a breakthrough case, and it damn near killed me,” Gierau said. “It scared the living crap out of me. And as a survivor of that, I’m here to tell you, get vaccinated.”

While the bulk of the proposed legislation doesn’t directly discourage vaccination, it sends a clear message: Personal choice is more important than public health.

One drafted bill would ban vaccine passports. Another would impose a $500,000 fine for firing, demoting, promoting, compensating or refusing to hire employees based on vaccination status. Both are sponsored by Republican Rep. Chuck Gray, of Casper.

Republican Sen. Tom James, of Rock Springs, sponsored a bill calling for fines and jail time for any public servant who tried to enforce federal vaccine mandates. The proposed bills provoked a strong reaction from Gierau.

“Frankly, I have a problem with my friends in the extreme right wing of the Republican Party trying to pass a law to tell me that if I tell my employees that they need to get a vaccine, that I’m to be fined or arrested,” he said. “Senator James seems to think that arresting elected officials is a nifty idea.”

None of the bills describe the life-saving potential of vaccines, though Dockstader, who is vaccinated, said that language could be added during this week’s discussions.

Even if approved and signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon, the proposed bills might lack legal force. The U.S. Constitution prohibits state statutes from superseding federal law.

Previously, the governor’s office had noted that Wyoming’s federal funding for workplace safety would be jeopardized if OSHA workers didn’t enforce a federal mandate.

The legality of vaccine mandates has become an increasingly hot topic as conservative leaders look to shoot down the requirements. Legal analysts forecast a series of legal battles as state and federal leaders wrangle for control.

Gordon has previously denounced vaccine (and mask) requirements, arguing in favor of local policies and personal choice.

His office said in multiple press releases that it is prepared to take legal action against “federal overreach,” though it noted: “The Biden Administration has yet to issue any specific policies that can be challenged in court.”