PROVIDENCE — Under proposed legislation, Rhode Island businesses would be barred from firing employees who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and hotels would be prohibited from refusing to rent rooms to the unvaccinated.
Representative Thomas E. Noret, a Coventry Democrat, has proposed amending a section of state law that now prevents discrimination based on race, religion, age, sex, or sexual orientation to include those who refuse COVID-19 vaccine shots.
The bill would bar banks from refusing to lend money based on someone’s vaccination history, and it would stop the governor from requiring vaccinations during a state of emergency.
During a House hearing this week, Noret said he was not trying to “cast aspersions” on the COVID-19 vaccine. “I believe it’s been welcome news to those who have been living in fear and apprehension for over a year,” he said.
But, Noret said, “Fear is always a first step toward discrimination.” And, he said, “there is no place in our society” for a policy that would “reward those who receive a vaccine or punish those who haven’t had this vaccine.”
Governor Daniel J. McKee has not proposed making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory. But some colleges, including Brown University and Roger Williams University, are requiring vaccines for in-person learning in the fall 2021 semester, with medical and religious exemptions.
Noret, a retired Coventry police officer who graduated from Roger Williams University with a criminal justice degree, said he introduced the bill in response to concerns raised by constituents in his town, which voted for former President Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election. He said he was introducing the bill to begin a conversation and is open to amendments.
A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate, and it is not expected to pass the House in its current form.
“The bill will go through the normal legislative process, like everything else,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat. “I have been vaccinated and urge everyone who is eligible to do so.”
Representative Carol Hagan McEntee, a South Kingstown Democrat, objected to the bill, saying a lot of college students live in her district, which includes South Kingstown and Narragansett. “We’ve got to get those kids vaccinated,” she said.
Students are already required to get a variety of vaccinations before they enter school, McEntee said, and people living in close quarters in college dorms, nursing homes, and hospitals need to be protected against COVID-19.
“I mean, this is for the greater good,” McEntee said during the hearing. “And we as legislators – I’m on the COVID-19 task force with the House – it’s our job to help promote the vaccine. To take up a bill like this – to find a loophole for people not to get the vaccine when we are in the middle of a pandemic – it just seems wrong to me.”
Noret said he, too, is on that COVID-19 task force, and he said he was not trying to create a loophole. “This is not an anti-vax bill,” he said. “I’m not preaching that people should not get the vaccine.”
While he has not decided whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Noret said he recently received the flu vaccine and took his mother to get the COVID-19 vaccine. “I think people are missing the point of this legislation,” he said.
The point, Noret said, is that some people are reluctant to get the vaccine because, for example, they think it was rushed to the market or have heard that it could affect their health. He said people should not have to fear that they will lose their jobs because of their decision about the vaccine.
“We should not be in fear of (not being able to continue) feeding our family because we, for whatever reason, choose not to get a vaccine,” Noret said.
He noted the Food and Drug Administration does not mandate COVID-19 vaccination, but state and local governments can pass laws dictating whether they or employers may require vaccinations.
“They are putting it on us to have this discussion,” Noret said. “And that is what I want to do.”
Representative Jason Knight, a Barrington Democrat, objected to the bill, saying, “We protect the flock at the expense of the sheep sometimes.” He said the country must get past the pandemic to fix the economy. “I think it’s people’s patriotic duty to get this (vaccine) if they can so we can all get back to normal,” he said.
Representative Julie A. Casimiro, a North Kingstown Democrat, spoke in favor of the bill, saying, “I do believe it is our patriotic duty to get the vaccine.” But, she said, “This is about not firing someone from their job because they choose not to get it.”
The state Department of Health director, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, wrote to legislators on Tuesday, saying the department appreciates the intent of prohibiting discrimination. But, she said, “The department is concerned that vaccination requirements currently in place in Rhode Island may be in danger of erosion should this legislation be enacted.”
Alexander-Scott said that neither the state nor the federal government requires the general public to be vaccinated against any disease, but states do require children to be vaccinated against diseases such as polio and measles before they go to public school and childcare.
Also, some states, including Rhode Island, require vaccinations for college students and certain healthcare workers, she said. But states, including Rhode Island, already allow families to opt out of vaccination requirements for medical reasons or religious objections, she said.
“It is critically important to protect and preserve long-standing and prudent public health measures that continue to keep our community safe,” Alexander-Scott said.