House committee passes amendment blocking businesses from mandating vaccines

By: - November 16, 2021 5:56 pm
A man and a woman hold signs in favor of vaccines and masking outside of the State House

Dennis and Deborah Jakubowski of Loudon show their support for the COVID vaccine and masking outside of the State House on Tuesday. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A late amendment that would disallow private businesses from mandating vaccines and expand vaccine exemptions to include natural immunity and philosophical objections passed the House Education Committee Tuesday, 11-8, with the support of one Democrat, Barbara Shaw of Manchester. The vote followed a nearly five-hour public hearing in which most speakers supported the legislation.

While Gov. Chris Sununu has said he supports a multi-state legal challenge to vaccine mandates on large employers, his office said Monday he does not support legislation that would prevent private businesses from adopting their own policies, such as vaccine mandates.   

Following the vote, House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, issued a statement with President Joe Biden’s visit to the state in mind. 

“Welcome to New Hampshire,” it said. “I hope that we made you feel welcome by giving (the legislation) a bipartisan green light out of the education committee. … This is the first step in pushing back against your vastly overreaching federal government and ensuring that Granite Staters who choose to exercise their right to health freedom will not lose their job.”

House Democrats responded.

“Today, we heard extreme testimony from both the public and our colleagues repeating disinformation on the COVID vaccine,” said Rep. David Luneau of Hopkinton. “Let’s be clear, the COVID vaccine is safe and effective. It is the right of companies, schools, and organizations to protect their patrons and employees from a virus that has taken the lives of over 750,000 Americans. Denying private businesses and organizations this right is not the New Hampshire way.”

The amendment to House Bill 255, which the committee retained last year, was proposed last week by committee Chairman Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican. The committee also passed the bill, which would exempt businesses, colleges, and universities from liability if an employee, customer, or student were exposed to COVID-19. 

“In a last ditch attempt to deny science and promote conspiracy theories, House Republicans disrespected the legislative process today by amending an unrelated education bill with language undermining public health and safety during a pandemic,” Luneau said following the vote. 

Tuesday’s public hearing drew more than 300 people to the State House. Almost all came to support the expansion of vaccine exemptions and a prohibition on mandates, citing safety concerns, federal overreach, and violations of constitutional rights.

“I don’t need to convince you that the threat to our liberty comes not from this body of government, but from above,” Dustin Richwine of Manchester said. “Fortunately, we have begun to see the trend of pushback against this overreach in recent years, from sanctuary cities to the cannabis industry to Second Amendment protections. States are finally saying no to unconstitutional federal action. The executive vaccine decree by President Biden is yet another unprecedented power grab.”

Most of those who packed Representatives Hall were opponents of vaccines, mandates, and masks. When the committee paused to welcome a group of fourth-graders visiting the State House, someone said to them, “Take the masks off,” followed by, “It’s okay babies, we’re fighting for you.”

Ladd was the first to testify, calling the vaccine mandate a burden on local businesses when they can’t afford to lose employees unwilling to get it. 

“It is my constitutional right to either be vaccinated or not. It’s my choice, not that of the government,” Ladd said. “To be denied employment based upon not being vaccinated is nothing short of discrimination.”

During the testimony, several people faulted the COVID-19 vaccine as ineffective, saying it has not prevented infection, transmission, hospitalization, or death. Public health officials have said the COVID-19 vaccine, like all vaccines, is not intended to do any of those things, but instead protects most people from infection and those who are infected from serious short- and long-term health complications.

Others cited what they believe are safer protections and cures, namely ivermectin, vitamins, and supplements. This has also been refuted by public health officials.

J.R. Hoell, co-founder of Rebuild NH, was one of at least two people to ask the committee to go further and add penalties for violating the law. 

Few spoke against the amendment. One was Dr. Gary Sobelson, on behalf of the New Hampshire Medical Society. He said mandating a COVID-19 vaccine is no different than mandating vaccines for school children or adopting other health-related protocols.

“We ban smoking in many of our workplaces because you can’t light up without affecting the air others breathe,” he said. “We’ll allow blood testing (for intoxicating and illegal substances) in many industries because it’s dangerous, and we’re worried about the safety of the work environments without such practices.”

Rep. Timothy Lang, a Sanbornton Republican who led last year’s successful effort to prevent public employers from mandating a vaccine, questioned Sobelson about a requirement that patients must provide informed consent before getting care. He said mandating an employee be vaccinated is coercion, not consent, and puts health care providers in a difficult position. 

Sobelson disagreed.

“Individuals have to make that decision and they absolutely can be given the information of the consequences of that decision,” he said. In this case, the consequences would be job loss. It is similar to someone refusing an operation for appendicitis. “They accept the consequences of that decision. I think in this particular case, the decision not to get vaccinated, these are not unreasonable consequences in the medical profession’s viewpoint.”

Rep. Betty Gay, a Salem Republican, said she had called her local pharmacies looking for ivermectin. Assurances that few people suffer health effects after they get a COVID-19 vaccine is not assurance enough, she said.  “We don’t confuse low odds with low stakes,” she said. “The stakes can be your life. It should be your choice to take a vaccine. I know lots of people who’ve taken, but I’m not going to.”

Alan Easton told the committee vaccine mandates are intended only to enrich drug companies, not public safety.

“I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I’m a father of five and a grandfather of seven,” he said. “One thing that I always wanted to instill in my children is always do the right thing. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, tell me the truth. I think those sentiments are pretty accurate for today. Consider … the saying, ‘Love of money is the root of all evil. Follow the money.’”

Nicole Souza of Amherst reiterated the safety allegations and likened mandates to an authoritarian takeover. “(Authoritarians) coerce while they say it’s for your safety,” she said, urging the committee to pass the amendment. “I have to ask you to have courage today. Show the world that liberty cannot be destroyed under the guise of safety. That America is the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

HB 255 will go before the full House for a vote in January.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]