An Indiana lawmaker filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would ban "vaccine status discrimination," coming just as cases soar.
Senate Bill 114 would prohibit businesses from requiring vaccines for any employees or customers. Businesses also could no longer require those who are unvaccinated to get tested, wear a mask or social distance, in situations when those who are vaccinated aren't required to.
Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, said he drafted the bill because of a deluge of phone calls and emails from people concerned about vaccine mandates. People shouldn't be forced into getting the COVID-19 vaccine, he said.
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Critics of the bill argue businesses are best suited to make such decisions that impact the health of their customers and employees, and warn it could also stifle the entertainment industry.
The Palladium, Ruoff Music Center and the TCU Amphitheater at White River State Park, for example, all require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. That practice would likely have to end if Senate Bill 114 passes.
Jeffrey C. McDermott, president and CEO of the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, said that many artists won't perform at venues without such protections in place.
“I can’t speak to this specific legislation, but I can say that most artists on the Center’s schedule are in the midst of national or international tours through locations with widely varying vaccination and infection rates," McDermott said. "A statewide law of this kind could have a profound negative impact on Indiana’s live entertainment industry, which employs thousands of people and generates millions in economic activity.”
Businesses and governmental units, which are already prohibited from requiring proof of vaccination, also wouldn't be able to offer incentives for those who get vaccinated, under the proposed bill. Some universities and schools, such as Purdue University, have offered financial incentives for those who voluntarily disclosed they were vaccinated.
Democrats were also quick to criticize the Republican party for using the word "discrimination" in the title of the bill, arguing it was a partisan piece of legislation meant to "discredit the vaccine."
"If the @Indgop cared about discrimination, they would've passed hate crimes legislation to protect LGBTQ Hoosiers," the party tweeted last week, referencing a failed effort to include such protections in hate crimes legislation in 2019. "But they didn't."
Indiana reported the highest number of new positive COVID cases in a single day since the start of the pandemic on Thursday, according to the Indiana State Department of Health's website, and hospitals are urging people to get vaccinated to keep Indiana hospitalization rates down.
For Tomes, the most important part of his legislation is ensuring people aren't losing their jobs because they refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He added that it's a hindrance to require weekly testing for those who choose not to get vaccinated.
"We now, in less than 24 months, went from a country where you had choices to make for yourself, and now we're a country where people make choices for you," Tomes said. "There is an element of liberty here in this country that as a citizen, it's an inherent right that you have. If you use an approach to start stripping away that liberty, in whatever manner we're using, that could cause serious trouble in the future."
It's unclear how much support Tomes will find. Republican lawmakers in the House have indicated they intend to prioritize a different bill that could discourage businesses from mandating vaccines for employees.
A different path forward
Under House Bill 1001, private businesses that have COVID-19 vaccine mandates would have to grant employees exemptions for religious or medical reasons. They also would have to give employees the choice to get tested weekly on the employer's dime instead of vaccinated.
That bill received a committee hearing in December, a rarity at the Statehouse where lawmakers typically meet in the first few months of the year. Bill author Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said lawmakers would start moving the bill quickly, despite intense pushback from medical organizations and those that represent businesses.
People are losing their jobs now, he argued, because of mandates.
For some Hoosiers, House Bill 1001 didn't go far enough. During the bill's committee hearing last month, some health care employees who lost their jobs complained of discrimination because they weren't vaccinated.
Tara Colgan, a nurse, said those who are unvaccinated are not being treated equally in the hospital.
“We don’t discriminate against age, race, sex, obesity, smoking, drinking, STDs, diabetes, or poor eating habits but now we are discriminating against… unvaccinated people,” she said. “There’s a lot of patient shaming going on.”
Likewise Dr. Casey Delcoco, an Indianapolis family medicine physician, specifically asked for a "vaccine nondiscrimination bill."
Indiana Chamber opposes bills
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which historically has sided with Republicans, has been vocal about its opposition to bills that would limit Indiana businesses' ability to be nimble.
"The chamber believes that employers in Indiana are in the best position to determine vaccination requirements for their workplace and what's best to keep their employees, their customers and their patients safe," Kevin Brinegar, Indiana Chamber president, said at a press conference Thursday when asked about House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 114. "And so, we do not support the various mandates from the federal government or interference and legislation from the General Assembly that would impact or discourage employers from having vaccination requirements in their workplaces."
Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he'd rather leave the decision of whether or not to mandate vaccines up to businesses.
"I have long said very openly that I believe that the employers, the businesses, are in the best position to determine how to keep their employees safe," Holcomb said during a year-end interview with IndyStar. "I trust them to make that decision. Now I will be paying very close attention to every word in whatever bill makes its way."
Lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Tuesday.
IndyStar reporters Alexandria Burris and Shari Rudavsky contributed to this story.
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: COVID in Indiana: Bill would ban 'vaccine status discrimination'