Proposed Idaho law would protect coronavirus unvaccinated

Legislation preventing most private and public entities in Idaho from discriminating against people who haven’t received the coronavirus vaccine cleared a Senate panel on Thursday.

The Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee approved the measure that prevents employers from requiring employees get the vaccine or entities requiring visitors or attendees be vaccinated.

Violations would be a misdemeanor punishable with a $1,000 penalty.

Republican Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder said the bill, called the “Coronavirus Pause Act,” finds the right balance.

“The idea here is that any time you make a choice to be vaccinated it’s a very personal decision,” said Winder, who is vaccinated against the coronavirus. “It’s not something that you should ever take lightly, and it should be a personal choice.”

But opponents said it creates special protections for one group of people and imposes additional regulations on businesses, especially problematic for small businesses. They also said it allows discrimination against those who are vaccinated and doesn’t protect vulnerable people who need to know, for example, if an in-home caregiver is vaccinated against coronavirus.

“We are choosing a side here, and we do create a special class here that we are protecting because we don’t do anything about these other two classes,” said Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne, an attorney.

He also said the proposed law would be the first employment law in Idaho that results in a crime, potentially leading to some small employers or sole proprietors unaware of their requirements being charged with a crime.

Ball Ventures, a Meridian-based commercial real estate development company with investments nationwide and that also has private equity investments, opposed the bill.

“The legislature should not be considering a bill that further expands regulation on employers in how they operate their businesses,” said Liza Leonard, the company’s director of public affairs. “As employers, we must have the ability to manage our employees in a manner that allows us to keep our businesses operational and our employees and clients safe.”

Republican Sen. Todd Lakey backed the bill.

“I think we all respect private business, but recognize that this is a situation that does help protect individuals from being forced to receive something in their body,” he said.

The measure has exemptions involving federal law, existing employee-employer contracts, and businesses that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

The measure contains an emergency clause to take effect when signed into law. It also contains wording that, if it becomes law, will expire one year after the termination of all state declarations of emergencies related to coronavirus in Idaho.

Republican Gov. Brad Little announced earlier this week that he will lift the state’s public health emergency disaster declaration on April 15, just over two years since it was put in place because of the pandemic.

That means if the bill becomes law, it would expire on April 15, 2023.

Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation at around 50%.

The rate of new coronavirus cases has dropped significantly in Idaho over the past two weeks, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Still, one out of every 219 residents tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, making the state second in the country for new cases per capita. Coronavirus-related hospitalizations have also dropped dramatically statewide.

— Keith Ridler is a reporter for the Associated Press.

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