California's progressive state Legislature has shelved bills aimed at requiring workers to either be vaccinated or get weekly coronavirus testing to keep their jobs, punting on a debate about vaccine mandates just days before the state's Democratic governor faces a recall election.
California is already at the forefront the debate around vaccine mandates, with Gov. Gavin Newsom ordering all of the state's roughly 2.2 million health care workers to either get vaccinated or lose their jobs while also directing state workers and teachers to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
Democrats in the state Legislature were crafting a pair of bills behind the scenes during the final two weeks of the session that would have gone further by either aiding or expanding those orders to include workers in both the public and private sectors.
One bill by Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks would have required all workers to either receive the coronavirus vaccine or submit to weekly testing. Another bill by Assemblyman Evan Low sought to make sure state law protected businesses that chose to require their workers to be vaccinated while also extending paid sick leave for up to 40 hours per week for anyone who can't work because of the virus.
Wicks announced last week she would not pursue her bill this year. Low's bill was still alive this week, and the Democratic Assemblyman from San Jose said he had secured agreements from both business and labor interests. But bills had to be introduced by Wednesday for lawmakers to vote on them this year, and Low missed that deadline.
Both lawmakers indicated they would try again next year.
“We unfortunately ran out of time,” Low said. “While I'm disappointed we will not be passing a bill that would have created greater safeguards for workers and employers, I will continue to exhaust all legislative avenues when it comes to protecting the health and prosperity of all Californians.”
Both bills' demise did not stop more than a thousand people from gathering outside of the state Capitol Wednesday for a rally opposing vaccine mandates. People marched around the Capitol in the midday heat, toting signs that read “Oppose vaccine mandates or they will never end" and “Nothing warrants removal of medical choice" while vendors hawked smoothies from the sidewalk.
As protesters marched, the state Assembly passed a bill that would make it illegal to come within 30 feet (9.14 meters) of someone at a vaccination site “for the purpose of obstructing, injuring, harassing, intimidating, or interfering.”
Violators could face up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000. The bill passed on a 54-0 vote, with Republicans not voting. It must return to the Senate for a final vote before lawmakers finish their work for the year on Friday.
“We know that there are anti-vaccine extremists that are escalating their tactics to disrupt and stop these vaccine efforts," Democratic Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan said.
But organizers of the vaccine rally at the Capitol rejected the “anti-vaccine” label they say has been unfairly thrust on them by others.
“If somebody wants to vaccinate, I support that. I just want them to have a choice. I want to have a choice to say no,” said Joshua Coleman, co-founder of the group V is for Vaccine that organized Wednesday's rally. He said he believed most people who attended the rally have gotten vaccines at some point in their life. “Some people just don't want the COVID-19 vaccine."
Some in the crowd wielded signs with inaccurate information, with one sign claiming vaccines cause early death and another claiming there is no pandemic, just the “government waging psychological warfare on you.”
There have been more than 222 million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide with more than 4.5 million deaths, according to data complied by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective, with more than 369 million doses having been administered in the United States as of last week.
Around noon, organizers had everyone crowd around the west entrance to the state Capitol for a giant group photo, with the goal to show lawmakers people who oppose vaccine mandates are “not the minority.”
“I want the legislators to understand that there is a large a mount of people in this state that do not want medical mandates and that it's unfair,” said Olivia Mikos, 44, who organized Wednesday's rally along with Coleman.
More than 80% of people 12 and older in California have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. That puts California, by far the most populous state in the country, among states with the highest vaccination rates.
Associated Press reporter Don Thompson contributed.