DES MOINES — Iowa governments would be barred from issuing "vaccine passports" to people as proof they have received COVID-19 vaccinations, and businesses and venues open to the public could face penalties if they require immunization proof under a bill legislators are slated to take up this week.
House File 889, sponsored by House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, has been introduced after Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said April 7 she "strongly" opposes any mandatory vaccination disclosure system as "an attack on our liberties and our freedoms" and would take steps to restrict it through legislation or her own executive order. The governor said vaccine passports pose constitutional, civil rights and privacy issues and potentially set up a "two-tiered society" requiring Iowans to "either engage or become marginalized."
The legislation, slated to come before a House Judiciary subcommittee Monday even as lawmakers aim for a target adjournment of Friday, seeks to prohibit the mandatory disclosure of whether a person has received a COVID-19 vaccination and proposes to bar any governmental entity or business that requires such proof in violation of the new law from receiving any grants and contracts funded by state revenue. The legislation, which has a companion leadership bill by Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, makes exceptions for health care facilities.
"Iowans have been loud and clear. They want their medical freedoms protected,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said in a statement Saturday. “The governor agreed addressing vaccine passports is a priority so the Iowa House is working to find a legislative solution to address the concerns of Iowans."
Under the proposal, the new state law that would take effect upon Reynolds' signature would prohibit state and local governmental entities from producing identification cards that include whether the cardholder has received a COVID-19 vaccination. Also, government entities and businesses holding a sales tax permit, nonprofit or not-for profit organizations, or an establishment open to the public at large or where entrance is limited by a cover charge or membership requirement will not be able to require a patron or other person who is invited onto the premises to furnish proof of COVID-19 vaccination prior to entering.
HF 889 does not prohibit a business or government from implementing a COVID-19 screening protocol as long as it does not include a required proof of the vaccination.
“I am regularly asked how we get back to normal in the wake of the coronavirus,” Whitver said in a statement Saturday. “The first step is Iowans getting vaccinated and the state has made tremendous progress on this front. I encourage Iowans not yet vaccinated to schedule an appointment.
“A return to normal must not include having to show your government issued vaccine papers to access routine functions of life in Iowa like going to a game, a concert, or a church service,” he added. “This legislation to prohibit mandatory vaccine passports in a shared priority of Governor Reynolds, the Iowa Senate, and the Iowa House. I look forward to advancing this bill.”
Democrats who are outnumbered 59-41 in the Iowa House and 32-18 in the Iowa Senate have said they do not see the need to enact a state ban on vaccine passports, but believe there are steps lawmakers could take to help Iowans hard hit by the pandemic and the economic, health and social challenges it has created.
“Congressional leaders, the Biden administration said they’re not doing it,” House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City said in response to the governor’s call for the ban. “I think this is just kind of a red herring discussion to take attention away from some of the problems that she’s having in her response.”
Biden administration officials have announced they would not create a federal vaccine passport or credential system or require travelers or businesses to be inoculated. But Iowa Republicans say federal officials may change their position or policies. So far, the push to develop digital proof has come from businesses including airlines and sports venues that have been experimenting with such systems.
“While I believe in the efficacy of the vaccine enough to get it myself and encourage Iowans to do the same, I also respect that it’s a personal choice,” Reynolds told reporters at an April 7 news conference. “But I strongly oppose vaccine passports, and I believe that we must take a stand as a state against them, which I intend to do either through legislation or executive action. I will also continue to do my part to educate and encourage Iowans about the importance of being vaccinated.”
The governor is encouraging Iowans to get vaccinated as soon as possible, taking whichever form of the vaccine they choose. At the same time, she said deciding to be vaccinated should be a personal choice and would not be required by the state.
Instead of trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, Democrats said, Statehouse Republicans should be focusing on problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic that are real.
“I wish she would have had this kind of laser focus proactively and preemptively on getting vaccines into Iowans’ arms earlier, that she's having on vaccine passports,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights.
Monday marks the 106th calendar day of the 2021 legislative session but Grassley has been hesitant to predict that this week will be the last with much of the $8 billion-plus state budget plan for fiscal 2022 awaiting floor action in both chambers along with GOP tax-cut proposals, Reynolds’ priorities in areas of housing, renewable energy and education and a dwindling array of policy changes that include the newly arriving vaccine passport topic.
One thing that may spur action is the fact that the daily expense money that House and Senate members receive — $172 for most and $129 for those residing in Polk County — ends Friday.
Even with the end of the per diem, Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville told reporters Thursday he projected the session would not end until May 15. But on April 8 he also said: “I would say that the odds that Iowa adopts vaccine passports are about the same as me being the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. It's not gonna happen.”