Vaccine mandate bills continue their advance in Wyo. Legislature's special session

CASPER — Three major bills fighting back against the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate advanced to third reading Thursday, a final step before they can move to the opposite chamber. 

Senate File 1003, COVID-19 discriminatory practices-prohibition, went through amendments that reworked the structure and methods of the bill. 

One from Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, would make vaccination status a protected class in “public accommodations,” joining race, religion, color, sex and national origin. Public accommodations include places such as hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and shops. Nursing homes have been among the most impacted “public accommodations” of the pandemic, and the bill prompted some concerns from senior advocates. 

“Our concern with 1003 is as written, a nursing home couldn’t determine whether it is closed to visitors without a vaccine when it is deemed to be in the best interest of the residents by administration,” said Tom Lacock, spokesman for the Wyoming AARP. “When 0.6 percent of the population is taking about 45 percent of all COVID deaths, it seems important to let local administration decide on visitation rules for their facilities.” 

The bill had contained significant provisions tied to insurance, but those were gutted, in part due to concern that the measure would result in dramatic hikes in premiums, as well as unforeseen consequences.

Another amendment that would have eliminated all criminal penalties was withdrawn, but will likely be brought back for Friday’s third reading. 

On the House side, two bills advanced to third reading after undergoing significant changes. But those amendments might be reworked again on Friday, multiple lawmakers said. 

The House adopted an amendment to its compromise bill on vaccine mandates that would only hold an employer liable for violating its provisions if they did so knowingly. That means if a business implemented a vaccine requirement that did not align with state law, they would not face consequences unless it could be proved they were aware it violated the statute. 

A second change to the bill was designed to allow state law to remain in place if a judicial stay were issued against federal rules regarding COVID-19 vaccine mandates. 

“It continues to assert (that) the state will push back against all federal preemption efforts,” Rep. Dan Zwonitzer said. “It basically says, ‘We will fight.’” 

The legislation would permit businesses to implement vaccine mandates so long as they allow a litany of exemptions and accommodations for unvaccinated employees. 

The new amendment cancels out a change adopted Wednesday that acknowledged federal rules would nullify any conflicting policies passed by the Legislature during the special session. 

Because no federal rules tied to the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate have been issued, it’s unclear how any bills passed during the session might conflict with federal law. 

Before the session began, groups such as the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce came out against a prohibition on private vaccine requirements, arguing such regulations would “infringe on businesses’ right to operate within the state.”