Ohio lawmakers introduce flurry of COVID-19 bills: What they would do

The debate over COVID-19 vaccination and masking requirements produced a flurry of bills from Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly, all seeking to prohibit some form of vaccination requirement and/or mask mandate.

Now the most sweeping of those proposals — House Bill 248, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester Twp. — is stymied while House Republican leadership works on an overarching replacement for it and related bills.

The latest such bill, by Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, might not even make it to committee. Koehler worked for about five weeks on his bill to prohibit governments and schools, but not private businesses, from requiring COVID-19 vaccination, said Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, chair of the House Health Committee. Koehler sought to build enough support that the bill could withstand a possible veto by Gov. Mike DeWine, Lipps said. But that effort may be superfluous.

“I believe now that bill will not be ‘the bill,’ because leadership is going to introduce another vaccine bill that will remove all these other vaccine alternatives to the side,” Lipps said.

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House leadership is working on rolling “five or six” COVID-19 related bills into one, which will be referred to the Health Committee, he said.

“It covers all the bases,” Lipps said.

It’s taking a while to balance safety and individual rights in one bill that can garner a veto-proof 60 votes in the House, he said.

Aaron Mulvey, spokesman for House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, wouldn’t comment on any such discussions within the Republican Caucus.

“With respect to legislation, leadership is continuing to work and talk with members of the caucus,” Mulvey said. “I’d anticipate there will be more details on that in the coming days.”

Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said Wednesday that he didn’t know what new COVID-19-related bills were being prepared in the House, but that several members were working on the issue.

He said COVID-19 regulations affect four basic “silos” — K-12 education, higher education, governments, and private business including private schools and nonprofits. They need to be treated somewhat differently.

“We’re dealing mostly with masks and with vaccines; and of course the question is do we mandate something, do we do nothing, or do we not allow local entities to make mandates?” Huffman said. “I think by and large, speaking on behalf of the majority caucus, the Republican Caucus in the Senate, there’s not much stomach for us mandating anything for any of those four silos.”

That means not just blocking public entities from requiring vaccinations, but making sure those same limitations don’t apply to private entities, he said.

“I don’t think our caucus wants to mandate anywhere in the private sector, or get involved in preventing them from mandating,” Huffman said.

If any mandates are allowed in the public sector, they would have to have broad exemptions, he said.

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Giulia Cambieri, communications director for Ohio Senate Democrats, said the minority caucus in the Senate had heard nothing about an overarching new bill.

Republicans hold supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, meaning they can pass legislation without any Democratic support.

Gross’ bill would have banned governments, schools, childcare facilities, healthcare facilities from requiring vaccination or urging people to be vaccinated. It doesn’t specify COVID-19 vaccination, but the ban does exempt requirements for the dozen mandatory childhood vaccinations.

Nor could any of those entities ask a person’s vaccination status, require a vaccine passport or registry, or disclose someone’s vaccination status, except as part of health care or medical billing.

House Bill 248 would also prohibit businesses from requiring vaccinations or vaccination status disclosure, and from denying service to someone who is not vaccinated or refusing to prove it.

Business groups lobbied against it, arguing that they should be free to set their own policies and that the bill violates Ohio’s at-will employment laws, which allow employers to dismiss workers for any reason.

Gross’ HB 248 faced headwinds in the Health Committee, and she said she’d discuss amendments with committee members – but didn’t do so, Lipps said. So it never gained enough support to pass out of committee.

Then on Sept. 10, Gross filed a discharge petition, seeing to force a vote in the full House. But she only got seven signatures, Lipps said.

“It takes 50,” he said.

House Republican leadership removed Gross from the Health Committee at 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20, Lipps said. But he was in the dark for 21 hours.

“I did not ask for Rep. Gross to be removed from Health Committee,” Lipps said. “I didn’t know anything about it.”

He said he found out from a media question on Tuesday.

Gross’ removal was “perhaps” in response to her use of the “nuclear button” of a discharge petition, Lipps said.

Rep. Gross did not respond to requests for comment.

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Other bills relating to COVID-19 vaccination and masking included House Bills 253 and 350, both introduced by Rep. Al Cutrona, R–Canfield. HB 253 would ban schools or state agencies from requiring vaccine passports, prohibit them from blocking entry to their buildings based on someone’s vaccination status, and prevent private companies that develop vaccine passports from sharing or selling medical information they collect.

HB 350 would block businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or demanding proof of such vaccination. It exempts healthcare providers from that ban – but specifies the exemption only applies to COVID-19 vaccines fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Pfizer vaccine received full approval since the bill was filed.

Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, introduced Senate Bills 169 and 209. The former would prohibit vaccination mandates, specifically for “a coronavirus,” and requiring proof of vaccination. The latter bill seeks to ban state and local school districts from requiring anyone to wear a facial covering in a school.

All four bills are still in various committees.

Lipps said Health Committee members are “clamoring” to go back to work.

“We have probably 40 bills in the Health Committee, 10 of them very strong bills,” he said. But as of Thursday afternoon they didn’t even have an agenda to put on the calendar for what should be the next regular meeting at 11 a.m. Sept. 28.

“I still – get this – I still don’t have a new member,” Lipps said this week. “Leadership’s handling it, I guess.”

He believes one will be appointed before the committee meets again.

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