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New Missouri Law Allows Businesses To Require Vaccination Proof — But Not Health Departments

A vaccination record card is shown during a COVID-19 vaccination drive for Spring Branch Independent School District education workers Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Houston. School employees who registered were given the Pfizer vaccine.
David J. Phillip
Associated Press
A vaccination record card is shown during a COVID-19 vaccination drive for Spring Branch Independent School District education workers Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Houston. School employees who registered were given the Pfizer vaccine.

Public health orders have been lifted across the Kansas City area, but a new law in Missouri would limit the power of local health departments to enforce them in future pandemics.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill into law Tuesday that he said “requires local leaders to be more transparent in their reasoning and accountable for their decisions when it comes to public health orders.”

Under the measure, local governments will be limited on how long they can order businesses, churches and schools to close during public health crises. It also adds a ban on local vaccine passports.

Here's how the new law will affect local health departments and private businesses.

Does this new law prohibit private businesses from asking customers to be vaccinated?

Missouri House Rep. John Wiemann, who sponsored the measure, says that the new law won’t stop private businesses from being able to make their own decisions on vaccine requirements.

The law prohibits local governments from requiring documentation of COVID-19 vaccination to access public transportation or other public services.

Wiemann said that it will be up to individual businesses whether they want to require customers to be vaccinated.

“If Walmart decided they wanted to require everybody coming into their store to be vaccinated, it’s their private business, they can do that. We're not telling them what to do,” Wiemann said.

Wiemann said that the aim of the law is to protect those that choose or are unable to be vaccinated.

“We don't want to have to force people in order to receive public services, to have to get a vaccination they may be religiously or medically unable to do,” said Wiemann.

Does this new law prohibit private businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated?

Again, no. Wiemann says the legislation does not address private entities, and only deals with county or municipal governments that receive public funds.

Kansas City Health Director Dr. Rex Archer said private businesses may want to put vaccine requirements in place to protect their own employees and establishments.

“They can require vaccination for out of state travel for their employees, or to even come in to work. They can mandate it and people have to prove it,” Archer said. “They can do it with customers. This is only saying that government can't.”

How does this affect the Kansas City Public Health Department in the next pandemic?

The new law restricts local governments to issue public health orders for no longer than 30 days during a 180-day period when under a governor-issued state of emergency.

Orders may be extended more than once with a majority vote by the local governing body.

If a statewide state of emergency has not been issued, the order is limited to 21 days in a 180-day period and requires a two-thirds vote for extension.

Archer said the process adds more bureaucracy to an already overwhelmed department.

“They're raising a bar at a level where it really is going to take a whole lot of extra work, to continue to protect the public's health and keep the outbreak from spreading,” said Archer.

During a pandemic, Archer said that health department employees may be working upwards of 70 hours a week and the time needed to reauthorize public health orders would take away from stopping the outbreak.

“What it would have done is tied all of us up every 21 days, having to reauthorize and go through all of that process, and potential public hearings,” Archer said. “It's bureaucratic, and it's wasteful.”

What kind of authority will the health department still have during a pandemic?

Archer said that while the health department will not be able to shut down businesses on a large scale, the new law does not prohibit them from closing an individual location.

If a school, church, business, or place of gathering is the site of a public health outbreak, Archer said the health department retains the authority to close them down.

“We can still protect the public at kind of individual locations, but we can't close an entire class without having to go through all these extra steps when we're burning the midnight oil,” Archer said.

Wiemann said the new process is about holding public leaders and departments accountable, and doesn't think it should be viewed as a burden.

"It should be a hassle when you're closing down an economy you're closing down businesses, churches and schools. They have to make sure they make the right call and that they're doing what truly is in the best interest of the public," Wiemann said.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3