Law bans businesses from refusing goods or services based on immunization status

In the 2021 regular session of the Alabama Legislature, many pieces of legislation would have altered Alabama’s processes during a state of emergency or spread of an infectious disease. Beginning July 1, businesses and places of worship can continue to operate in a pandemic, epidemic or bioterrorism event, as long as they comply with safety precautions issued by the governor, a state agency or a local government. The governor signed that law in early April:

Law Allows Businesses and Churches to Stay Open in Emergencies under Same Safety Precautions

On the final day of the session, lawmakers sent a ban on vaccine passports to the governor’s desk, while legislation that would have given the Legislature more say in declaring emergencies died.

Businesses cannot refuse goods or services or admission to a customer based on their immunization status or lack of immunization documentation, under Act No. 2021-493 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. It became effective when Gov. Kay Ivey signed it into law May 24, 2021. The law specifies no penalty for violations.

Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, who presented the legislation in the House, said it does not apply to employees and “business can require customers to wear masks or take other health safety measures.”

The law prohibits the state and localities from issuing vaccine or immunization passports or requiring immunization or proof of immunization as a condition for a benefit, service or entry into a building. It allows education institutions to continue to require students to present proof of vaccines that were required to attend school prior to Jan. 1, 2021.

The House removed a section that specifically would have excluded doctors, dentists, hospitals and other healthcare providers from its provisions.

Other vaccine passport bans – HB617 by Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, and HB621 by Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville – never received committee approval.

Other bills dealing with vaccinations that died in the 2021 regular session due to inaction included:

  • HB608, Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, which would have prohibited an employer from taking adverse action against an employee or potential employee based on the employee’s immunization status relating to any vaccination that has not received full FDA approval or that is given as part of a research protocol or that is experimental, and any vaccines for the coronavirus. A current employee, former employee or potential employee would have been able to pursue a civil action against an employer for any violation. The available remedies under the bill included injunctive relief, back pay and punitive damages.
  • HB214 by Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile, which would have prohibited an employer from taking adverse action against an employee or prospective employee based on the employee’s immunization status. This bill also would prohibit a ticket issuer from denying entry to an entertainment event based on immunization status.
  • HB278 by Rep. Ritchie Whorton, R-Owens Cross Roads, which would have repealed the law authorizing cities to compel vaccinations through an ordinance. It also would have prohibited employers from taking adverse action against an employee based on an employee’s immunization status and creates a cause of action against employers. It would have allowed Alabamians to opt out of mandatory vaccination programs based on their religious views, if they have medical conditions or based on “sincerely held personal beliefs.”

Also on the final day of the regular session, legislation giving the Legislature more say in extending public health emergencies, died in the Alabama House.

SB97 by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka, died on a procedural vote that would have allowed it to be considered before the state’s budgets.

Under Alabama law, the governor or the Legislature can declare a state of emergency. A declared emergency can last up to 60 days and be extended by the governor or by a joint resolution of the Legislature. Because of gubernatorial extensions, Alabama has been under a state of emergency related to COVID-19 since March 13, 2020 – more than a year. That emergency declaration ends July 6, while a scaled back state health order expires May 31.

Whatley’s bill would have reduced states of emergency to 45 days, renewable by the governor or the Legislature. The Legislature would have had the power to terminate a governor-declared state of the emergency “at any time.”

The legislation also would have required the governor to approve and file with the Secretary of State any public health emergency or directives issued by the state health officer.

The House never debated SB1 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which would have made cooperation in COVID-19 contact tracing voluntary. More than two months after receiving the legislation, the House Health Committee gave the bill a favorable report April 28. The Alabama Senate unanimously approved the bill Feb. 23.

Anyone who refused or failed to cooperate in contact tracing would have been immune from liability arising from that refusal, under the bill.

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