AUSTIN, Texas — A battle over vaccine mandates has some businesses scrambling and lawyers confused.
On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that bans any entity from requiring COVID-19 vaccines. The order says no entity can require an employee or customer to get vaccinated if they have any reason of personal conscience, religious belief or medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19.
Some organizations, like Baylor, Scott & White Health, had already implemented COVID-19 vaccine requirements. It started requiring shots on Oct. 1. A spokesperson said it has a 98% compliance rate, but is reviewing the governor's order to see if it needs to make changes.
Lawyers, business owners and even Austin Mayor Steve Adler are trying to figure out exactly what the new order means.
"I'm still real confused by the governor's order," said Adler.
It's the phrase "personal conscience" that's causing a lot of the confusion.
"All they have to prove is any reason of personal conscience," said employment lawyer Dan Ross. "We don't know what that means necessarily, but it could be as simple as, 'Hey, I don't want to get a shot in my arm because it hurts.'"
Ross said the broad language helps employees who don't want to get vaccinated but not people who may have already been fired.
"This really is going to create more problems for employers in that they're going to have to decide what qualifies as an exemption," said Ross.
This order goes against the Biden administration's plan to require the COVID-19 vaccine or weekly testing for businesses with over 100 employees.
"Our intention is to implement and continue to implement these requirements, including in the states where they attempt to oppose them," said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
If both rules stand, employment lawyer Scott Brutocao said businesses might be left with one choice.
"Which is just to require testing," Said Brutocao. "They're not going to be able to require vaccines but, again, depending on what Gov. Abbott's order means, right?"
Texas businesses that violate the order could be fined $1,000.
The governor wants the Legislature to pass a bill similar to his order before the third special session ends next week.
Both lawyers said lawsuits against the order could start to pop up soon.
Laura Huffman, president and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce released a statement concerning Executive Order 40 which was issued by Gov. Greg Abbott on Oct. 11, 2021:
“This executive order issued by Governor Abbott banning vaccine mandates by private employers is a mistake. It is contradictory to previous orders the governor issued that reinforced the rights of businesses to choose a path that works best for themselves when navigating the pandemic. It also places businesses that are subject to the forthcoming federal government’s vaccine rule in an impossible situation where to follow one order would defy the other. A mandate against mandates is still a mandate and our businesses and community deserve better than this.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce supports the rights of individual businesses to continue to make the best decisions for their employees and business. If a business believes a vaccine mandate is best for their business, then they should have the right to make that choice just as those businesses that do not feel a mandate is needed for their business should have the freedom to choose that path.
Over the past 18 months, Austin’s business community has innovated to keep their doors open, people employed, and customers served, all while prioritizing public health and safety. As vaccines became widely available, an overwhelming majority of people and businesses rejoiced as finally there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The Austin Chamber also believes that vaccines are the best tool we have in ending this pandemic and have encouraged the public to get vaccinated to protect themselves, loved ones, and the community.
As we await the conclusion of the inevitable legal battle that will surely be fought over this executive order, businesses will suffer, public health will be endangered, and our state will only be further divided. We respectfully call on Governor Abbott to rescind this order.”
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