Businesses are now allowed to require their employees to be vaccinated, so long as they abide by federal regulations for employer mandates, according to guidelines released late last week by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This was not a political announcement. Still, it can’t help but sharpen a line in the sand between the administration and a number of Republican governors, who’ve shown more concern about enshrining the right to refuse a vaccine.
In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a law to prevent businesses and government agencies from requiring consumers to show vaccine passports — that is, proof of vaccination — in order to buy goods or receive services. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas followed with an executive order to similar effect. Other Republican governors have issued orders or signed laws prohibiting vaccine passports, some of which only pertain to government agencies while others cover private businesses.
The moves have left the governors at odds with businesses from time to time. In Florida, the luxury cruise industry — just now coming back after a C.D.C. announcement last week declared it safe to resume operations — has complained that DeSantis’s passport law could make a return more difficult.
But polls show that the Republican governors aren’t distantly out of step with the general public nationwide, which is about evenly split on questions related to vaccine passports. That makes this different from previous pandemic-related safety precautions, like closing businesses and requiring mask-wearing, to which the G.O.P. base was far more opposed than the general public.
And it may be one issue on which the Trump base falls somewhat into alignment with the more traditionally conservative-leaning strain of the Republican electorate, a group that has sometimes felt abandoned by Trump’s movement.
“Traditionally Republicans have been very against government interference in free enterprise, and into the workings of the private market,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. He said it was too early to say how vaccine politics would affect the 2022 midterms, but added, “It’s going to be a big issue.”
Federal guidance and states’ opposition
For its part, the Biden administration has said that it won’t create anything resembling a national passport program. “The government is not now nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters in April. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”
The E.E.O.C. said in December that companies could require workers to get vaccinated, but released more detailed guidance on Friday; it clarified that companies could require vaccinations for employees working in person, though not for those working remotely. The agency stipulated that because this was a mandate, it was subject to the usual equity-related requirements, meaning companies needed to take measures to assist employees who were unable to safely take the vaccine, or were otherwise covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The move by the federal agency, dedicated to ensuring fair workplace practices, came after pressure from public health experts and business leaders, who had asked the Biden administration for clarity especially around what kinds of incentives they could legally offer to get employees vaccinated.
While that announcement doesn’t directly conflict with the state-level laws signed by Republican governors, it indicates a possible dividing line on the politics of Covid-19, particularly as Republicans decide how hard to push the issue ahead of the 2022 midterms.
DeSantis, for one, has made opposition to heavy Covid restrictions central to his appeals to the Republican base. During his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, he proudly called his state an “oasis of freedom” amid the lockdown.
Where the public stands
Throughout the shutdown, a large majority of Americans supported caution on reopening. But by early March, just after DeSantis’s speech, the country was split into thirds on whether businesses were reopening too quickly, too slowly or at about the right pace.
Other recent polling suggests that the public is about evenly divided on whether to institute vaccine passports, with the differences starkest along party lines. But solid majorities favor requiring proof of a shot in some instances, such as for large events and air travel.
If anything, this suggests a possible opening for the G.O.P., whose base has been out of step with the majority of the country on major Covid-related policy questions throughout much of lockdown.
From early in the pandemic, a vast majority of Americans reported favoring caution over a quick reopening, but Republicans were far more likely than Democrats and independents to say that. Throughout last year, most Republicans opposed a mask mandate, while upward of six in 10 Americans approved.
The vaccine passport question might not put the party’s base at odds with the rest of the electorate to the same degree. A Fox News poll conducted in April, soon after DeSantis signed his law, found that just 41 percent of Americans thought businesses should be allowed to require proof of a vaccine from employees and customers, while 6 percent said it depended on the circumstance; 44 percent said businesses shouldn’t be allowed.
Asked in a Gallup poll in April about specific consumer activities, considerable majorities were opposed to requiring the vaccine at the workplace, in restaurants or in hotels. (That flipped to a similar size majority in favor of a requirement when respondents were asked about crowded events and airports.) In all cases, just over a quarter of Republicans favored the requirements. But this time, independents — who have mostly sided with Democrats on supporting more Covid precautions — were more likely to agree with Republicans.
“This is definitely a case where much of the general public and a big part of the Trump base align relatively closely,” Eli Lehrer, a founder of the free market advocacy group R Street Institute, said in an interview. “It’s possible vaccine passports could do some good for public health. I also believe they could be a major infringement on personal liberties.”
Yet as vaccinations become more ubiquitous and the country creeps toward herd immunity, it could become moot, making virus debates less potent in the culture warring of the midterm campaign trail.
Upward of 40 percent of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And polling indicates that the share of American adults saying they will never get the vaccine has dwindled to about one in five.