AUSTIN, Texas — On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to ban Texas entities from requiring a COVID-19 vaccination of anyone, including employees or customers.
Abbott’s order said the rule applied to any individual “who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19.”
The governor also sent a message to the chief clerk of the Texas House and secretary of the Texas Senate adding the issue as an item to the third legislative special session agenda. The executive order will be rescinded upon passage of such legislation, Abbott said.
Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said the Legislature most likely won't have time with the third special session ending on Oct. 19.
"The Legislature still has to pass a host of redistricting bills and other legislation that are ahead in the queue," said Jones. "It's extremely unlikely that a vaccination mandate ban would be able to make it through the Senate and the House in the one week remaining."
The order sets up a maximum fine of $1,000 for failure to comply with the rule.
"The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective and our best defense against the virus, but should remain voluntary and never forced," said Abbott in a release.
A previous law signed by Abbott in June prohibited any Texas business from requiring so-called “vaccine passports” of customers.
President Joe Biden last month directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to write a rule requiring employers with at least 100 workers to force employees to get vaccinated or produce weekly test results showing they are virus-free. The plan is part of an all-out effort to curb the impact of the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant.
The Labor Department is still working on formal rules, but Abbott's new order goes directly against the president's plans. Jones said the governor is leaning on the Texas Disaster Act as backing for the ordinance.
"Which he has been interpreting to allow him to respond to the pandemic as he sees fit," said Jones. "The Legislature had a chance to rein in some of his powers during the previous regular ushered in back in the spring, but opted not to do that."
Jones said the federal government typically wins in the end, but it's a big question if the State would enforce the federal rules.
"What Gov. Abbott is signaling is even if in the end his executive order is overruled by the federal justice system, he, Texas, may not be all that vigilant in terms of enforcing this type of mandate," said Jones.
Jones said this new order complicates things for private businesses that have started implementing the vaccine mandate.
"Now you find yourself essentially caught between two principal actors: the Biden administration that says you have to require the vaccination mandate, and Gov. Abbott, who says you cannot require vaccination mandates," said Jones.
The OSHA rule would cover an estimated 80 million workers and has already been threatened with lawsuits from GOP attorneys general. The OSHA requirement would last six months, after which it must be replaced by a permanent measure. Employers that don’t comply could face penalties of up to $13,600 per violation.
Once it’s out, the rule would take effect in 29 states where OSHA has jurisdiction, including in Texas. Other states like California and North Carolina that have their own federally approved workplace safety agencies would have up to 30 days to adopt equivalent measures.
State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) issued the following statement after Abbott's announcement:
"It is reckless for Gov. Abbott to interfere with the liberty of business owners and school leaders to run their organizations in the way they feel is the safest and in the best interest of their associates and the people they serve. As someone who had a tough fight with COVID-19, I don't want anyone else to suffer or die because of people not being vaccinated. Too many have already suffered and died needlessly. The way to get through this pandemic is through evidence-based methods, such as vaccinations."
KVUE reached out to the White House for a response to Abbott’s order. In response, the White House regional communications director forwarded along the following quote from Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
"Gov. Abbott's executive order banning mandates and I would also note announcement by Governor DeSantis this morning, essentially, banning the implementation of mandates, fit a familiar pattern that we've seen of putting politics ahead of public health," Psaki said, adding, "Over 700,000 American lives have been lost due to COVID-19, including more than 56,000 in Florida and over 68,000 in Texas, and every leader should be focused on supporting efforts to save lives and end the pandemic."
The Texas Hospital Association issued the following statement on the order. Ted Shaw, THA president and CEO, said:
“The time is now to set politics aside and let hospitals do what’s best to protect their patients. Texas hospitals strongly oppose efforts underway to hamstring them from being able to require vaccination of their own staff, many of whom are at the bedside every day with children and adults who are vulnerable to COVID-19. This political action undercuts the central mission of hospitals, and patients and staff cannot be put at unnecessary risk. Hospitals have soldiered on for months at ground zero of this pandemic. As experts in healing and saving lives, hospitals must have the trust, respect and flexibility to mandate vaccines in their own facilities to protect the people of Texas.”
Texas hospital system Baylor, Scott & White released the following statement:
"We are currently reviewing the executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott. Roughly 98% of our workforce is in compliance. We continue to process vaccination records and communicate with team members, ensuring our records are accurate."
In response, the Texas Association of Business said:
"The Texas Association of Business believes that employers are best suited to determine their own workforce policies. TAB actively supports vaccination as the best tool to fight COVID-19. We also recognize there are certain medical and religious exemptions that enjoy certain legal protections at the state and federal level. Exemptions also make sense for those who have recently contracted the disease and recovered. It is important for business and government to work together at all levels to provide a workable set of rules. Doing so would help restore supply chains, solve workforce issues, bring our economy back to full strength and protect public health."
Laura Huffman, president and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce released a statement concerning Executive Order 40 which was issued by Gov. Greg Abbott on Oct. 11, 2021:
“This executive order issued by Governor Abbott banning vaccine mandates by private employers is a mistake. It is contradictory to previous orders the governor issued that reinforced the rights of businesses to choose a path that works best for themselves when navigating the pandemic. It also places businesses that are subject to the forthcoming federal government’s vaccine rule in an impossible situation where to follow one order would defy the other. A mandate against mandates is still a mandate and our businesses and community deserve better than this.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce supports the rights of individual businesses to continue to make the best decisions for their employees and business. If a business believes a vaccine mandate is best for their business, then they should have the right to make that choice just as those businesses that do not feel a mandate is needed for their business should have the freedom to choose that path.
Over the past 18 months, Austin’s business community has innovated to keep their doors open, people employed, and customers served, all while prioritizing public health and safety. As vaccines became widely available, an overwhelming majority of people and businesses rejoiced as finally there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The Austin Chamber also believes that vaccines are the best tool we have in ending this pandemic and have encouraged the public to get vaccinated to protect themselves, loved ones, and the community.
As we await the conclusion of the inevitable legal battle that will surely be fought over this executive order, businesses will suffer, public health will be endangered, and our state will only be further divided. We respectfully call on Governor Abbott to rescind this order.”
At a joint meeting with Travis County Commissioners and health leaders, Mayor Steve Adler, along with some councilmembers, asked about what they could do to ensure businesses' employees were still getting vaccinated. Health leaders said, along with incentives, they will look into other communication and engagement strategies.
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