Republican Governors Infuriated by Biden’s Vaccine Mandates
Some employers and business groups welcomed the new coronavirus requirements, but many G.O.P. leaders issued outright condemnations.,
President Biden’s orders pushing millions of workers to get vaccinated were aimed at turning the tide on a pandemic that has killed 650,000 Americans. But on Friday, the mandates immediately deepened the nation’s political divisions over coronavirus vaccinations and government power.
Some employers and business groups welcomed the sweeping new requirements, which affect most federal employees and contractors, health care workers, and companies with 100 or more employees. Labor unions representing millions of workers expressed a mix of support and reservations. And Republican leaders issued outright condemnations, calling the mandates a big-government attack on personal freedoms and private business.
News of the mandates prompted Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina to say he would fight Mr. Biden and his party “to the gates of hell.”
Several Republican governors vowed to go to court to challenge the constitutionality of the rules that affect two-thirds of American workers, setting the stage for one of the nation’s most consequential legal battles over public health since Republicans sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
“@JoeBiden see you in court,” Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Biden offered a curt response to the legal threats as he visited a Washington middle school to urge parents to get shots for their vaccine-eligible children. “Have at it,” he said.
The mandates represented an aggressive change of posture for the administration, which had resisted widespread vaccine requirements as a more contagious variant of the virus fueled resurgent Covid-19 infections and deaths this summer even though about 65 percent of American adults were fully vaccinated.
“I am so disappointed, particularly that some of the Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities,” Mr. Biden said as he delivered remarks at the Washington school.
Legal experts say the federal government has broad authority to address the public health crisis created by the pandemic, and Mr. Biden on Friday predicted that his health orders would survive legal challenges.
But across the country, the more urgent worry for many businesses was how to carry out and enforce new rules that the president estimated would affect 100 million Americans.
Businesses wondered: How would they verify a worker’s vaccination status or track the weekly tests required for workers who do not get vaccinated? How would the rules be enforced? What would happen to workers or companies who refused to comply?
Still, the new mandates could take some pressure off businesses and iron out the current jumble of vaccine requirements. Many companies, including United Airlines and Tyson Foods, were already moving toward requiring vaccines. Business Roundtable, a powerful lobbying group, released a statement supporting the administration’s new orders.
“Business Roundtable welcomes the Biden administration’s continued vigilance in the fight against Covid,” said the group, whose members include leaders of General Electric, Amazon, Goldman Sachs and dozens of other large companies. “America’s business leaders know how critical vaccination and testing are in defeating the pandemic.”
For months, Molly Neitzel, the founder and chief executive of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream, which has several locations in Washington State, has debated whether to require her 180 employees to be vaccinated. On Friday, she felt like the new mandates gave her some cover to do so.
“I was honestly just relieved,” she said. “We have between six to 10 who have chosen not to be vaxxed yet. I know it makes people on their teams nervous.”
Hospital workers in Houston and Detroit who opposed earlier vaccine requirements sued over their employers’ rules, and face covering rules have put employees on the front lines of sometimes-violent confrontations with customers who refuse to wear masks.
“Some companies will simply be relieved that the president took this step,” said Bob Harvey, the president of the Greater Houston Partnership, which represents about 900 companies in Texas’ largest city. “It takes the onus off of them if they’re simply implementing a federal mandate.”
Several large companies and major federal contractors declined to take sides in the debate on Friday, and simply declared that they would follow the federal rules.
But there was almost unanimous defiance from Republican governors across the South, Midwest and West who have opposed mask mandates and business restrictions and have tried to block schools from requiring masks.
Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia suggested that he might sue to “stop this blatantly unlawful overreach by the Biden administration.” Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama referred to the rules as “outrageous, overreaching mandates.”
And in Florida, where a judge on Friday allowed a ban on school mask mandates to remain in place as a legal challenge works its way through the courts, Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a fund-raising email that Mr. Biden had “declared war” on the rule of law and millions of Americans’ jobs by issuing the vaccine requirements.
Republican leaders like Mr. DeSantis have been among the governors grappling this summer with the grim toll of the Delta variant — overflowing intensive-care units, classroom outbreaks and resurgent deaths from a pandemic killing 1,500 people every day in the United States. Now, many seem eager to wage a political fight against the Biden administration.
If their states prove to be powerless in blocking new mandates in court — and if the mandates help drive down infection rates in their states — these governors could reap the benefits of having a healthier populace and moving beyond the recent spikes that have struck the South with particular viciousness.
In recent weeks, as the crisis intensified, a number of governors in the South have sought to find a rhetorical strategy that both encouraged vaccines and affirmed that it is a personal medical choice best made without excessive pressure from the government.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
That delicate balance was on display again on Friday as Republican governors slammed the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate while touting the benefits of the shots.
He added: “This is still America, and we still believe in freedom from tyrants.”
Even moderate Republican governors who imposed lockdowns early in the pandemic and have promoted vaccines were critical of the sweeping mandates.
Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican who wore face masks and set up a $1 million lottery prize for vaccinated Ohioans, said the nationwide mandate was a “mistake” that would harden the political divides over vaccination. In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox said he had “serious concerns” about whether the order was legal.
Democratic governors offered a mix of support and caution, reflecting the volatile politics of Washington mandates and the pandemic in many closely divided states. In Virginia, home to more than 140,000 federal workers, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is running for a new term, said the mandates would help blunt the virus and lift an economy strained by the Delta variant. But in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office released a statement saying she was reviewing the plan.
The issue of masks has not only divided states from one another, but has drawn stark lines within large Republican-controlled states where many cities and suburbs are run by local Democratic leaders and rural areas wield disproportionate power in state capitols.
Van R. Johnson II, the mayor of Savannah, Ga., applauded the vaccine mandates as a necessary move to tackle the pandemic in a Republican-run state that has seen a sharp rise in new cases since July.
“If we’re going to beat Covid we got to do it with big definitive decisive actions, and our president has definitely decided to do that,” said Mr. Johnson, a Democrat.
The federal vaccine mandates also provided Republican politicians with an easy opportunity to rally their own political base by slamming the Democratic administration.
For Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, the issue of mandates has been a fraught one since the beginning of the pandemic. Initially hesitant to mandate masks, he ordered Texans to wear them last summer.
That stance set off paroxysms of anger among some Republicans, contributed to the ouster of the leadership in the state party, and is among the reasons he will face at least two primary challengers next year. Mr. Abbott has since issued an order banning all vaccine or mask mandates.
Now the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates have offered a useful political foil for Mr. Abbott, who rose to his office in part by constantly suing the Obama administration while he was the state’s attorney general. Texas has also sued the Biden administration to block several of its immigration policies.
Federal vaccine mandates, imposed without state support, struck some experts on the history of pandemics as novel.
“It is historic,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a pediatrician and professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan. “There are broad powers that the president has, but has never used. The feds have always been very careful, if they do get involved, to be invited by the governors.”
Reporting was contributed by Stacy Cowley, Lauren Hirsch and Katie Rogers.