Ohio House approves ban on COVID vaccine mandates for schools, employers and on 'vaccine passports'
The Ohio House voted mostly along party lines to approve a Republican bill on vaccine mandates, vaccine exemptions and vaccine passports, after previous votes on a similar bill stalled. And how the bill got to the floor and its future beyond it are raising questions.
The bill’s path to the floor of the Ohio House was unexpected and unusual. It’s House Bill 218, which was proposed in March to exempt bars from statewide curfews and to extend bar hours.
But in a surprising move Thursday morning, that language was erased and new wording was put into what became the substitute or sub bill – much of it from House Bill 435, a controversial bill on COVID vaccine exemptions introduced in September.
Rep. Al Cutrona (R-Canfield) sponsored House Bill 218 in the House Commerce and Labor Committee, and said while the language may be different than his original bill, it’s not brand new.
“At the end of the day, we've had numerous hearings on 435, which the sub bill is almost identical to - very minor changes that we've added to it that was placed in there," Cutrona said.
House Bill 435 creates opt-outs or exemptions for COVID vaccines mandates that are so broad, anyone who wants one can get one without having to provide a reason.
But this bill also adds in a provision from another measure Cutrona proposed – to ban public and private entities from requiring proof of vaccination status, or so-called vaccine passports.
The Democrats on the committee said they didn’t see this new language until less than an hour before the hearing. Rep. Janine Boyd (D-Cleveland Heights) said Republicans gutted the bill and “pulled a fast one” in rushing the bill to the House floor hours later.
“It's shameful. It is a mockery of what this job is really supposed to be and what the committee process is," Boyd said. "It's a mockery of it and a departure from sincere policy work."
House Bill 435 wasn’t new to lawmakers not only because there had been two informal hearings, but because there had been two attempts to vote it that were scuttled after thunderous opposition from more than a hundred business, health care and community groups.
In debate on this revised bill, Democrats spoke out. Rep. Allison Russo noted COVID vaccines are safe and effective, but Ohio has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the US. And Russo said this bill wasn’t much improved from the previous one.
"It is still lipstick on a pig. It still continues to give vaccine disinformation a platform. It still creates confusion when businesses and organizations have to navigate conflicting requirements," Russo said.
The bill passed on a mostly party line vote. All Democrats opposed it, and were joined by Reps. Laura Lanese (R-Grove City) and Nino Vitale (R-Urbana), who has signed a petition to force a vote on a bill to ban all mandatory vaccines and has said his children aren't vaccinated.
After the second scratched vote last month, House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) had said, “We put in countless hours not only weeks but months on this bill with all kinds of input and so it’s time now to move on to other important topics that are facing Ohioans and are before the state legislature.”
So after months of discussing bills that included that bill that banned all mandatory vaccines from childhood shots to the COVID vaccine - and a hearing that got national attention for testimony that falsely claimed COVID shots "magnetize" people and "interface" with 5G cell towers - the sudden addition of this new vaccine mandate bill to the schedule was a surprise.
And that led to rampant speculation that some Republican lawmakers were hoping to trade their votes for the Congressional map for movement on a vaccine mandate bill.
Word of that even got to Republican former Congressman Steve Stivers, now the Ohio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO and a fierce opponent of any attempt to ban vaccine mandates for businesses that want to impose them.
“This bill is coming to the floor through an act of legislative terrorism to force this bill to the floor, threatening the Congressional maps," Stivers said. "And so we'll see who votes for it and who doesn't. But there's a vocal minority that's pushing it hard.”
But Cutrona and other Republicans said the quick action on this bill, after Cupp had said the legislature was moving on from vaccine mandate bills, had absolutely nothing to do with the Congressional map vote.
The bill now goes on to the Senate, but its future there is cloudy, at least according to comments from Republican Senate President Matt Huffman last month.
He told reporters that his caucus deliberately tries to avoid telling businesses how to run their operations unless necessary.
“Much of this, as with most regulation, whether it’s health related or others, most of it gets sorted out by the market. And it is getting sorted out by the market. So we’re going to try to let that happen," Huffman said.
And Gov. Mike DeWine doesn’t appear to be on board either. A spokesman said DeWine “still opposes requiring businesses to mandate vaccines and opposes government prohibiting employers from making those decisions as well.”