By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
A bill making its way through the Wyoming Legislature not only would prohibit discrimination over people’s COVID-19 vaccine or face mask choices, it also would prohibit the same for other infectious diseases like measles, mumps and polio.
In many ways, Casper Republican Rep. Jeanette Ward’s House Bill 66, “Prohibiting Mask, Vaccine and Testing Discrimination,” represents the motivation behind a 2021 special session of the Wyoming Legislature on COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Ward’s bill would prohibit any regulations in Wyoming based on a person’s vaccination, face mask or medical testing status.
That means no business, hospital or school would be allowed to require COVID-19 vaccination, testing or other related requirements of employees, customers or students.
It’s not limited to COVID, and also would prohibit the same for any other infectious virus.
Medical Professionals Weigh In
A number of health practitioners expressed concern with the bill when testifying Wednesday for the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.
“I don’t think there are many people in the medical field that would argue how important vaccination has been to our society as a whole,” said Andrew Rose, a pediatrician at the Cheyenne Children’s Clinic and leader of the Wyoming Academy of Pediatrics.
“I find that this bill would very much hinder that for our state and put us sort of back a few centuries, to the extent where vaccinations are not upheld in schools and other situations,” he told the committee.
Boyd Brown, representing the Wyoming School Boards Association, also spoke against HB 66.
Ward asked a handful of people testifying against the bill if they would support the legislation if it was restricted to COVID-19 measures, showing a possible willingness to narrow the scope.
All said they would prefer that change, but most also said they still wouldn’t support it.
Ward said she first became inspired to draft the legislation after hearing concerns from many of her constituents about vaccine mandates, particularly after a visit to a community health care facility to get a sports physical for her daughter.
Ward said she was informed upon entering she would have to wear a face mask, and they immediately walked out.
“I couldn’t believe this was still a thing in Wyoming in 2022,” Ward told the committee.
Ward said her legislation insulates private citizens from government tyranny by protecting them from big business and big pharma, two forces she considers one in the same under the umbrella of big government.
“I am prioritizing the rights of the individual, of We The People,” Ward said. “We the People are taking back our liberties.”
Prison Or Fines For Violations
Ward’s legislation also would prohibit individual small business owners from enacting vaccine and face mask rules of their own choosing.
Violating the legislation would result in a misdemeanor criminal charge carrying a pentalty of up to one year in prison and/or up to $5,000 in fines.
“Private businesses do not own their customers or their employees,” she said. “They don’t have free reign to abuse us.”
Ward said many small businesses felt pressured to mandate masks, doing so only grudgingly during the pandemic.
There are very few businesses in Wyoming still requiring face mask use, but most medical facilities still do.
Not The Same As No-Shirt, No-Shoes
Ward said vaccine mandates are not equitable to policies such as requiring shoes and shirts be worn inside a business.
“The no shoes, no shirt, no service paradigm has been accepted over decades and it doesn’t interfere with our right to breathe and doesn’t potentially harm us,” she said.
Risks To Others
There also was significant conversation in the committee meeting about businesses with immunocompromised employees.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, equated the conversation to the many discussions held over the years at the Legislature about the rights of small businesses to restrict firearms.
“Does that business have the right to then say, ‘You must be vaccinated because my employees are at risk?’” Zwonitzer asked Ward.
Ward said they don’t.
Where Is The Line?
Cindy Delancey, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, spoke against the legislation.
“We do have systems of laws,” Delancey said. “Businesses do not want overregulation. It’s not quite as simple as this bill is for the people.”
Delancey said small businesses are the primary revenue generator for the state and her organization pushed back against many of the business restrictions put in place during the pandemic.
But her group supported Gov. Mark Gordon’s actions.
There have not been any state-level health orders in place since May 2021.
Not ‘One-Size Fits All’
When Delancey suggested patients could simply go to different health care providers if they didn’t like the requirements held at a particular facility, Ward shook her head in disagreement.
“What if there’s no other business open to do business that don’t require a mask, vaccine, etc.?” Ward asked Delancey.
Delancey responded they could visit another part of the state and that Wyoming is not “one-size fits all.”
Look Out For Yourself
Rep. Tony Locke, R-Casper, spoke in support of the legislation, saying he doesn’t want businesses to have the freedom to enforce a medical procedure, even if they have immunocompromised members on staff.
“Of course, I’m careful to be cautious around one of those individuals,” he said. “But I think it comes down to this – it is still not my responsibility to care for their health.
“It’s every individual’s responsibility to care for their own health.”
Public Also Weighs In
A number of people at the meeting expressed similar beliefs, one who had had lost a job in health care and was unable to get a new one because of noncompliance with vaccine requirements.
Most facilities allow vaccine exemptions for medical or religious beliefs.
Lance Porter of the Medical Center of Casper said a religious exemption has never been denied at that facility.
A number of health care providers also expressed concern to the committee about what enacting the legislation would do to Wyoming’s federal funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Eric Boley, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said it could cost Wyoming more than $1 billion.
“I think it would be a staggering amount,” he said.
Ward wasn’t convinced.
“I think we need to prioritize our freedom above taking money from the federal government,” Ward said. “I think we need to get off the dole of the federal government and stop relying on it.”
Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, said any potential loss of federal money is a big unknown at this point, mentioning sanctuary cities around the country that flout government regulations on topics like marijuana and immigration.
A Lawsuit Waiting To Happen
Brad Cave, an attorney for law firm Holland & Hart LLP, said the legislation, if passed, would immediately be challenged in court as unconstitutional.
Delancey said it infringes on Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Americans With Disabilities Act regulations.
She also said it would open many individual businesses to lawsuits.
The committee will continue discussion of the legislation at 8 a.m. Friday.