House panel OKs giving Legislature more say in an emergency; also approves voluntary contract tracing bill

The Alabama Legislature has enacted one bill that would change how the state responds to future pandemics and other states of emergency:

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

This week, a House committee approved a bill that would give the Legislature more input in future emergencies, putting a substitute version in line for consideration by the full House in the final two weeks of the 2021 session. Here’s a synopsis of proposals that would alter Alabama’s processes during a state of emergency or spread of an infectious disease:

On a voice vote Wednesday, the House Health Committee approved a substitute version of SB97 by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, which would give the Legislature more say in extending public health emergencies. It now goes to the full House with only three days remaining in the 2021 regular session. If the House approves it, the bill will have to go back to the Senate for concurrence.

On April 14, the House State Government Committee carried over the House companion – HB241 by Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka. That bill died in that committee.

Under current 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.

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

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

More than two months after receiving the legislation, the House Health Committee on Wednesday gave a favorable report to SB1 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which would make cooperation in COVID-19 contact tracing voluntary. The bill now goes to to the full House with only three days remaining in the 2021 regular session.

The Alabama Senate unanimously approved legislation Feb. 23.

Under the bill, anyone who refuses or fails to cooperate in contact tracing would be immune from liability arising from that refusal.

Orr said people should not be required to tell contact tracers with whom they have associated or been around. “This bill provides some boundaries, protects privacy and makes it voluntary,” said Orr.

Other key provisions of the bill include:

  • Information collected through contact tracing must be used only for that purpose, kept confidential and not disclosed;
  • Information must be destroyed when no longer needed for contact tracing;
  • People working as contact tracers must receive training and must acknowledge that they are familiar with the confidentiality protections in the legislation.

The Senate amended the bill to allow universities and academic medical centers to conduct and authorize contact tracing without the prior authorization of the state health officer or any county health officer.

Businesses could not refuse goods or services based on immunization status or lack of immunization documentation, under substitute legislation approved April 21 by the House Health Committee.

SB267 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which passed the Senate on April 8, is on the House’s special order calendar for Tuesday, May 4. If the House approves it, it will have to go back to the Senate for concurrence. The bill also 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. The legislation includes exceptions for public schools, colleges and universities, doctors, dentists, hospitals and other healthcare providers.

The people of our state need assurances that there will not be vaccine passports,” Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, told the committee. Mooney also introduced a vaccine passport ban, HB617. Another similar bill is HB621 by Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville. Neither bill received committee approval this week, meaning there is not enough time to consider the bills in the current session.

Other bills dealing with vaccinations that died this week 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.”

The House State Government Committee on March 10 approved legislation that would require a county health officer to get written permission from the state health officer before issuing an order or directive related to an epidemic or disease. The amended version of HB168 by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, awaits consideration by the full House.

There is concern out there that the Jefferson and Mobile county health officers exceeded their authority” during the coronavirus pandemic, Garrett told the committee. Besides requiring written approval from the state health officer, Garrett’s bill also would require a local legislative delegation to be involved in any discussions with officials about the potential need for a county health directive. Jefferson and Mobile counties currently are the only counties with their own health officers.

The committee amended the bill to apply to directives involving more than one household and to involve the local legislative delegation in discussions.

The Senate Healthcare Committee never considered SB184 by Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, which would have prohibited county health officers from issuing a health order, during a state of emergency, if the state health officer had already issued a statewide order.

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