Biden COVID-19 vaccine

President Biden at a briefing for the COVID-19 vaccine on Sept. 16, 2020.

In a White House speech on Sept. 9, President Biden announced a plan to require every employer in the U.S. with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workforce is either vaccinated against COVID-19 or provides weekly negative COVID-19 tests. The plan could affect 80 million workers and is part of the president’s increasingly aggressive push to increase national vaccination rates.

“Our new COVID-19 plan will reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans, decrease hospitalizations and deaths, allow our children to go to schools safely and keep our economy strong by keeping businesses open,” Biden said in a tweet accompanying the speech. “We will spare no effort in saving lives and beating this virus.”

The plan, which will be carried out through an emergency rule of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and a series of executive orders, has spurred fierce debate over its constitutionality, with several states already taking legal action against the Biden administration.

In his speech, Biden took specific aim at Republican elected officials who are opposing mask mandates and vaccine mandates.

“My plan also takes on elected officials in states that are undermining you and these life-saving actions,” Biden said. “Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic, while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs — talk about bullying in schools. If they’ll not help, if these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way.”

The reaction from Tennessee officials suggests that it will be difficult for the president to “get them out of the way” and that the battle over the mandate will come close to home, and likely even to campus.

In a fight that has been waged largely on Twitter, Gov. Bill Lee responded to specific claims in Biden’s speech with a commitment to stand against the president’s plan.

“‘This is not about freedom’ is a phrase that should never come out of a U.S. President’s mouth,” Lee said in a tweet from Sept. 9. “The Constitution won’t allow this power grab, and in the meantime, I will stand up for all Tennesseans.”

Much of the specifics of the plan are yet to become fully clear, which makes mounting legal challenges to the vaccine mandate difficult. In his latest statement on the Department of Labor’s rule, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slattery III noted that the rule itself had not been developed.

“Our office is working with other state officials to review and evaluate the President’s new plan. It will take some time,” Slattery said. “The Labor Department’s rule has not even been written; the Executive Orders are complex; and frankly, I have my doubts that anyone knows the true ramifications of his actions at this point.”

In April, the Tennessee state legislature passed House Bill 13, which prohibits the governor, a state agency or any “political subdivision” of the state from requiring vaccination against COVID-19. Though the bill was singed into law by Gov. Lee in May, it is unclear if such a law would have any impact against an executive order or an emergency public health rule from OSHA.

In a statement to The Daily Beacon, Rep. Jason Zachary, Republican of House District 14 who voted to ban vaccine mandates in Tennessee, called on state governments to oppose the new plan.

“What is clear is that the president is clearly overarching beyond the bounds of the executive branch set forth in the Constitution,” Zachary said. “Why do we need a legislative branch if the president can take such action? What will the next executive order or rule required of businesses or we the people? The states must stand against the proposed overreach of the executive branch.”

For now, it is unclear exactly how Biden’s far-reaching plan could affect UT's campus. The university system announced back in January that it would not require vaccines for students or staff, and House Bill 13 further established that no vaccine mandate on campus would be possible without legal ramifications within the state.

Whether or not the Biden administration’s new plan will overturn the state’s prohibition on vaccine mandates remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: As an employer with more than 100 employees, UT will play a role in the coming legal battle between Tennessee and the federal government.

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