Anti-vaxxers hate Iowa's "vaccine passports" bill

The governor signed this bill on May 20. Original post follows.

“I look forward to signing this important legislation into law!” Governor Kim Reynolds tweeted on May 6, after the Iowa House and Senate approved a bill purportedly banning “vaccine passports.”

House File 889 fits a pattern of Republican bills that are best described as solutions in search of a problem. No state or local government agency intends to issue COVID-19 vaccine passports, nor are Iowa-based businesses rushing to require that customers show proof of coronavirus vaccinations.

A “message” bill can be useful politically, if it pleases a constituency Republicans need in the next election. The odd thing about this last-minute push is that Iowa’s most vocal vaccine skeptics don’t support the bill heading to the governor’s desk. On the contrary, they’re demanding a veto in the name of freedom.

WHAT THE BILL DOES, AND DOESN’T DO

House File 889 is only two pages long. Section 1 bans state and local governments from issuing identification cards indicating whether the holder has been vaccinated for COVID-19. Section 2 bans business and government entities from requiring a “customer, patron, client, patient, or other person who is invited onto the premises” to show proof of having received a COVID-19 vaccination. Violators would be ineligible for state grants or contracts.

The bill “does not prohibit a business or governmental entity from implementing a COVID-19 screening protocol that does not require proof of vaccination for COVID-19.” And crucially for its opponents, it does not apply to health care facilities. That term has a broad definition in Iowa Code, including not only hospitals and medical clinics, but also “Residential care facilities, nursing facilities, intermediate care facilities for persons with mental illness, intermediate care facilities for persons with intellectual disabilities, hospice programs, elder group homes, and assisted living programs.”

The bill also does not prohibit businesses from ordering employees to be vaccinated. Republican State Representative Steve Holt, who floor managed the bill in the Iowa House, said during the April 28 debate that it was a difficult call but he felt business owners should have the right to make those choices. He speculated that the free market would prevent this from becoming a problem, because managers having trouble hiring enough qualified workers would not limit the applicant pool by demanding vaccination.

Since most private businesses don’t receive state assistance or contracts, the bill arguably offers little to deter companies that want to require COVID-19 vaccines for all customers. But I’ve seen no indication any Iowa-based firm was planning to do so.

HOUSE REJECTS SEVERAL AMENDMENTS

Republican State Representative Jon Jacobsen had introduced an amendment protecting workers when the vaccine passport bill was in the House Judiciary Committee, but members voted it down. Holt said then that such language might be considered when the bill came up for floor debate, but he did not incorporate it into a manager’s amendment.

Republican State Representative Jeff Shipley, the Iowa legislature’s loudest critic of vaccines, introduced three amendments during the floor debate. The first would have removed the second part of the bill. Most Democrats and five Republicans (Shipley, Jacobsen, Brooke Boden, Eddie Andrews, and Mark Cisneros) supported the amendment, but the other 50 Republicans present voted it down.

Next, Shipley proposed an amendment to remove the exemption for health care facilities. Holt asked colleagues to vote no, saying the obligation to keep vulnerable residents safe needs to be balanced against other people’s freedom to avoid vaccines. He asserted that the exempt facilities will not deny care to Iowans who are unvaccinated, or refuse to let them visit relatives in care facilities. Holt promised state lawmakers would revisit the issue next year if facilities used this exemption to ban unvaccinated people from the premises.

Holt also said the exemption was needed to allow facilities to comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance. For instance, vaccinated people can be unmasked while visiting a vaccinated nursing home patient’s room, but a long-term care facility can’t enforce that policy without being able to ask visitors about their vaccination status.

House members rejected the effort to remove the health facilities’ exemption by 85 votes to 9, with Republicans Cherielynn Westrich, Sandy Salmon, Skyler Wheeler, and Ray Sorensen joining Shipley, Jacobsen, Boden, Andrews, and Cisneros in support.

Shipley’s last amendment would have banned businesses from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment. It was ruled not germane, and only eight Republicans supported Shipley’s motion to suspend the rules to allow a vote on the proposal. (There was no record roll call on that vote.)

House members approved final passage by 58 votes to 35. Most Republicans present supported the bill, joined by Democrats Chris Hall, Steve Hansen, Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Ras Smith, Kristin Sunde, Dave Williams, and Mary Wolfe. The rest of the Democrats present voted no, joined by Republicans Andrews, Boden, Cisneros, Jacobsen, and Shipley.

Andrews and Cisneros did not speak during the floor debate and didn’t respond to Bleeding Heartland’s emails about their opposition. Speaking on the House floor, Boden said she was deeply concerned the health care facilities exemption would prevent families from seeing their loved ones; she has a sister in residential care. Jacobsen confirmed via email his objections related to the rights of workers not to be forced to “get a jab” to get a job, as he articulated during the Judiciary Committee’s meeting (around the 1:10:20 mark of this recording).

Shipley wrote at length on his website about the bill, in a post titled, “Iowa House Republicans betray sacred Constitutional freedoms, sell Iowa’s privacy rights to Biden administration.” He also discussed the bill in an hour-long interview with a leader of the “Iowans for Freedom” Facebook group, created last year to oppose various COVID-19 mitigation policies.

MUTED OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE

Compared to the Iowa House debate, the Senate’s consideration of the bill on May 5 was a low-drama affair. No one proposed amendments, and no one spoke against the bill. Senate President Jake Chapman floor-managed the bill, a rare step for the chamber’s second-ranking Republican. He is rumored to be considering a bid for Congress in 2022, which could explain why Chapman sought a high-profile role. During his closing remarks, he declared,

Iowans don’t want to be forced to have a chemical injected into their body to be able to go to a baseball game, to go to the grocery store, to live their lives. […] Here in Iowa, we will protect Iowans from being forced by tyrannical governments to inject their body with chemicals that they may or may not wish to have.

Chapman didn’t address the health care facilities exemption. In a Facebook video posted by Informed Choice Iowa, one activist claimed Senate Republican leaders had told group members privately they could not remove the exemption, because doing so would risk losing federal Medicaid funding for the state’s facilities.

The 32 to 16 Senate vote to pass House File 889 fell mostly along party lines, with two Democrats (Eric Giddens and Jackie Smith) supporting the bill and one Republican (Jim Carlin) opposing it. Carlin later posted this statement on the Facebook page for his U.S. Senate campaign.

As a strong proponent of a ban on so-called Vaccine Passports in Iowa, I must clarify my recent no vote on House File 889, legislation that would implement the ban on denying access to facilities based on COVID-19 vaccination status. The legislation exempts medical facilities. Although I support the intent of the legislation, I do not support the exemption for health care facilities, which could deny health care to patients who choose not to have the vaccine. Medical choice is a precious right of every Iowan and I will defend every individual’s right to decide whether or not the vaccine is safe for them, whether that person be a health care provider, a patient, a shopper or an employee.

The idea that Iowa health care providers will refuse medical treatment for unvaccinated people may seem far-fetched, but social media posts suggest this view is widely held in anti-vaccine circles. Several public speakers at the House Judiciary subcommittee meeting on this bill raised similar concerns.

GROUPS URGING REYNOLDS TO VETO BILL

Although Reynolds has already promised on national television and on her social media feeds to sign the supposed ban on vaccine passports, activists aren’t giving up. According to Shipley, he met with the governor on May 7 to present his case for a veto. The Iowans for Freedom and Informed Choice Iowa groups have been mobilizing supporters to contact the governor’s office.

In one Facebook video, an Informed Choice Iowa organizer asserts the bill “does more damage than good. You could argue that you have more freedoms without it passing.”

Another Facebook post provided talking points for those who would call or email the governor:

Another post published since the Iowa Senate vote:

Informed Choice Iowa is also asking members to support the “Stand-Up Six” House and Senate Republicans who voted against House File 889: Shipley, Andrews, Boden, Cisneros, Jacobsen, and Carlin.

I doubt anti-vaccine activists will become a big political problem for Reynolds, but their loud complaints about the bill could complicate her efforts to spin this as a victory for Iowans’ freedom from unwanted vaccinations.

P.S.- Kathie Obradovich is right that the governor’s bragging about banning vaccine passports undercuts her efforts to persuade Iowans to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, she goes on FOX News to take credit for telling people they don’t have to get vaccinated if they don’t feel like it, even as she spends a half-hour on public television every week in Iowa telling people they really should get vaccinated.

Governor, you’re absolutely right that mixed messages are to blame for much of the vaccine hesitancy among Iowans. So stop mixing your messages. Stop pandering to anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and their enablers in the GOP. Stop pretending to rescue us from “tyrannical” government and start bringing those mobile vaccine clinics to county GOP meetings and party fundraisers.

LATE UPDATE: Some leading organizers with Informed Choice Iowa were in the governor’s office after midnight on May 20, cheering as Reynolds signed an immediate ban on school and local government mask mandates.

Later the same day, she quietly signed a batch of bills including House File 889 with no fanfare.

Top image: Screenshot from video Informed Choice Iowa posted on Facebook on May 6.

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