Georgia bills to ban vaccine, school mask mandates advance

jeff mullis

Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga is the sponsor Senate Bill 345, which would prevent state agencies and local governments from requiring COVID-19 vaccines. (AP Photo/Ezra Kaplan)

Georgia senators are advancing bills that would let Georgia public school parents opt their children out of school mask mandates and would bar many state and local agencies from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

Both bills would expire June 30, 2023, meaning lawmakers would have to act again if they want the laws to continue after next year.

Many Republican-controlled states had passed such measures last year, part of a broad conservative backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness. Georgia lawmakers did not act last year, but the GOP-controlled General Assembly could be more amenable to the measures in this election year, even if they might expire once officials win new terms.

Senate Bill 514, allowing parents to exclude their children from mask mandates is backed by Gov. Brian Kemp. The Senate Education and Youth Committee passed it 7-5 on Wednesday, sending it to the full Senate for more debate. It was introduced after Republican attacks on likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams for not wearing a mask when she spoke at a Decatur elementary school earlier this month where masks are supposed to be required.

“Parents are the best decision makers when it comes to the health and education of their children,” said the sponsor and Kemp floor leader, Sen. Clint Dixon of Buford. “This legislation ensures that those rights are not infringed upon by misguided policies.”

Dixon said he believed the state needs to “begin to return to normal” and said masks are harming children by inhibiting instruction and social development in the classroom.

“Masks create major ongoing distractions for students and educators,” Dixon said.

He and others also claimed masks are ineffectual, a claim contradicted by studies, and that high-quality masks are not made to fit children, although child-sized N95 masks are available online.

Opponents said it was strange to allow parents to opt out of mask requirements when the state House, among other bodies, is still requiring face coverings. Dixon also encountered passionate opposition from Sen. Donzella James, an Atlanta Democrat who was hospitalized for months with COVID-19 last year.

“We can’t be playing with this,” said James, who said she woke up one morning with a sheet over her head, after hospital workers apparently mistook her for dead. “This thing is still killing people.”

She said masks are a way to protect other people, not just the person wearing it.

“It will take away the little safety that we do have to protect ourselves and all the people around us,” James said of the opt-out provision.

Like Dixon, the sponsor of Senate Bill 345, which would prevent state agencies and local governments from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, said he was responding to demands from his constituents.

“I think everybody should have vaccinations,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga. “I just don’t think that state government should mandate it.”

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed the bill 7-4 on Wednesday, sending it to the full Senate.
As originally written, Mullis’ bill would have barred schools from requiring proof of any vaccinations at all. Mullis has said that’s not what he intended. But the measure is likely to make at least one vaccine mandate unenforceable. The Decatur school system in suburban Atlanta requires teachers to be vaccinated and boosted against the virus. No other school systems in Georgia are known to have required employees to get vaccinated.

As amended Wednesday, the measure excludes health care facilities that are subject to federal mandates for their employees to get vaccinated to continue receiving federal payments. Anna Adams, a lobbyist for the Georgia Hospital Association, said that exemption was key because many Georgia hospitals are owned by city or county health care authorities.

Opponents of the measure said it will abet misinformation that is deterring some people from getting vaccinated.

“Georgia’s war cry has to be vaccinate and verify so that we could return to our new, healthy normal,” said Brandt Lewis, director of the vaccination program at the liberal-leaning New Georgia Project.

But supporters likened requiring vaccination to racial segregation. “All Georgians deserve open access to all public services without having to worry about fear of discrimination or harassment based on their vaccination status,” said Sue Francis.

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