Resistance to vaccine mandates, once a fringe position, has entered the Republican mainstream. But the governors fighting President Biden’s Covid-19 vaccine requirements impose mandates of their own.
Like other Republican governors around the country, Tate Reeves of Mississippi reacted angrily to the coronavirus vaccine mandates President Biden imposed on private businesses. Declaring the move “terrifying,” he wrote on Twitter: “This is still America, and we still believe in freedom from tyrants.”
There is a deep inconsistency in that argument. Mississippi has some of the strictest vaccine mandates in the nation, which have not drawn opposition from most of its elected officials. Not only does it require children to be vaccinated against measles, mumps and seven other diseases to attend school, but it goes a step further than most states by barring parents from claiming “religious, philosophical or conscientious” exemptions.
Resistance to vaccine mandates was once a fringe position in both parties, more the realm of misinformed celebrities than mainstream political thought. But the fury over Mr. Biden’s mandates shows how a once-extreme stance has moved to the center of the Republican Party. The governors’ opposition reflects the anger and fear about the vaccine among constituents now central to their base, while ignoring longstanding policy and legal precedent in favor of similar vaccination requirements.
“Republicans care about getting beyond this pandemic every bit as much as Democrats do,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. But, he added, “politicians are certainly happy to exploit this issue for political gain, which is why I think the Republican governors are up in arms.”
Mr. Biden also imposed vaccine mandates on federal workers and many health care workers. But Republican outrage is really boiling over his plan to require all private-sector businesses with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccines or weekly testing for their work forces.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas called the president’s move “a power grab.” Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina promised to fight Mr. Biden in court, to “the gates of hell.” Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana called it “unlawful and un-American.” Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama called the move “outrageous” and “overreaching.”
But each of these states — indeed every state in the country — already mandates certain vaccinations for children, and sometimes for adults, including health care workers and patients in certain facilities.
Mississippi, which has one of the lowest coronavirus vaccination rates in the nation, has consistently led the United States in childhood vaccinations — a point of pride for its health officials and many of its lawmakers. Alabama, similar to Mississippi, also refuses to acknowledge “philosophical, moral or ethical” exemptions to mandatory childhood vaccinations.
Experts in public health law agree that Mr. Biden is on solid legal footing, because his actions are grounded in federal workplace safety laws. They say Republican governors who insist that vaccine mandates are an intrusion on personal liberty need a refresher on their own state policies.
“That is pure hypocrisy,” Lawrence O. Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, said of Mr. Reeves’s remarks. “Even religious exemptions are swept away in the state of Mississippi, so how can he say that an order that a president makes to keep workers safe, with authorization by Congress, is an overreach or in any way unconstitutional?”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Reeves, Bailey Martin, rejected Mr. Gostin’s assertion. “The only people being hypocritical are President Biden and his administration, who for months have said they would not mandate the vaccine,” she said in an email, adding that Mr. Reeves would use “every tool at his disposal” to block the mandates.
Republican suspicion of vaccines was building before the pandemic; when Donald J. Trump was running for president in 2016, he rejected established science by raising the debunked claims that vaccines cause autism. Now, some of the governors argue that given the country’s outsize divisions, and widespread suspicion of Washington, federal intervention would be counterproductive. It would be best, they say, to let state officials continue making the case that the vaccines are safe and effective, and to allow people to make decisions themselves.
“I’m trying to overcome resistance, but the president’s actions in a mandate hardens the resistance,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” School mandates, he said, “have always come at the state level, never at the national level. And so this is an unprecedented assumption of federal mandate authority that really disrupts and divides the country.”
Dr. Jha said Mr. Biden had in fact done Republicans a favor.
“What the president does is he creates political cover for Republican leaders, who will scream loudly because it’s politically expedient,” he said. “But I think many of them are actually feeling relieved, because now they don’t have to do the hard work of convincing their constituents.”
Indeed, when the highly infectious Delta variant began ripping through their communities and overwhelming their hospitals, many elected Republicans — notably Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader — started pleading with people to get vaccinated. Most of the Republican governors criticizing Mr. Biden have said much the same.
Even as Mr. Reeves blasted Mr. Biden on Twitter, he took care to declare the vaccine itself “lifesaving.” Mr. McMaster held a news conference last month to encourage South Carolinians to take the shots, saying, “Now is a great time to do it while we’re getting ready for the fall.” In Alabama, Ms. Ivey has adopted the same stance as Mr. Biden: “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the deadly coronavirus surge, she said recently.
Three-quarters of American adults have had at least one Covid-19 shot, which suggests growing acceptance of the vaccine. Mr. Biden’s move is aimed at the roughly 80 million Americans who are eligible but remain unvaccinated. Experts call it an unprecedented exercise of presidential authority to encourage vaccination.
“It’s really uncharted waters,” said Claire Hannan, the executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state immunization officials.
Mr. Biden is pointing to childhood vaccine mandates to make his case.
“Parents, get your teenagers vaccinated,” he said on Friday during a visit to a middle school in Washington. “You got them vaccinated for all kinds of other things. Measles, mumps, rubella. To go to school and play sports, they have had those vaccinations.”
The Supreme Court has twice upheld vaccine mandates, beginning more than a century ago in the 1905 case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in which Justice John Marshall Harlan reasoned that a “community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease” — in that case, smallpox — “which threatens the safety of its members.”
Both cases upheld state or city mandates, and do not apply to Mr. Biden’s actions, according to Mr. Gostin. Because public health powers are reserved to the states under the Constitution, he said, the Supreme Court would almost certainly strike down a national mandate.
But Mr. Biden did not impose a national mandate. He took a series of specific, limited actions that legal experts agree are within his purview as president. The mandates he announced — for the federal work force and federal contractors, for employees of health care facilities and Head Start programs that accept federal funding, and for large businesses — are grounded in powers that Congress has granted to the president, including the authority to ensure a safe workplace under the law that established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
And Mr. Biden gave businesses an out. Employees who do not want to get vaccinated can undergo weekly testing — a fact that his critics fail to note. Mr. Reeves, for instance, asserted that the president had “no authority to require that Americans inject themselves because of their employment at a private business,” without mentioning testing as an option.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
Vaccine mandates are not new, nor is resistance to vaccination. As far back as 1721 in Boston, a vaccine opponent threw a small bomb through the window of Cotton Mather, who was promoting inoculation against smallpox during a deadly outbreak. By the early 1900s, smallpox vaccination again emerged as a contentious issue in Massachusetts, giving rise to the Jacobson case.
By the 1920s, many schools in the United States required vaccination against smallpox, according to the History of Vaccines, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. When vaccines for diseases like pertussis, polio and measles became widely available in the 1940s and ’50s, the American public, inclined to have faith in science and government, voluntarily accepted them, said David Rosner, a Columbia University historian who specializes in the intersection of politics and public health.