CLARKESVILLE, Ga. - With increased supplies of vaccine headed to Georgia, some businesses will soon face some complicated questions.
Can they require their employees be vaccinated? How about their customers? And can schools eventually make the same demand for students?
Legal experts tell the FOX 5 I-Team the answer to all those questions is yes. But it’s still not that simple.
"I think there would be some legal risk to an employer that chose to make a vaccine mandatory," said Emory law professor Dr. Ani Satz. "But I think there’s some legal arguments to support that choice."
It’s already happening in other parts of the country.
In Brooklyn, New York, a waitress said she was fired after refusing the COVID vaccine, worried it might affect her chances of getting pregnant. The CDC says none of the three vaccines poses such a risk. The restaurant says its vaccine policy has now changed to allow for certain exemptions.
And in Janesville, WI, a county-run nursing home mandated its workers be vaccinated. Nearly a dozen workers quit or were laid off rather than take a shot.
An estimated one-third of Americans say they won’t touch any of the three COVID vaccines, potentially setting the stage for some ugly encounters.
"Absolutely," said Dr. Fazal Khan of the UGA Law School. "And it’s something that can’t be avoided."
A government-run nursing home in WI required staff be COVID-vaccinated. Employees who refused either quit or were laid off. (photo courtesy Adam Duxter, WISC-TV)
Other attorneys, however, point to one important word: Emergency.
They argue that because all three vaccines are currently under Emergency Use Authorization, employers can’t force them on their workers.
There’s even verbiage in the Food and Drug Administration EUA guidance explaining the recipient "has the right to accept or refuse."
But in a January 27 announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said "whether an employer may require or mandate COVID-19 vaccination is a matter of state and other applicable law."
Georgia law allows the health department to issue a vaccine mandate. If that happens, a religious exemption is not allowed during a pandemic.
Not believing in vaccines is also not considered a valid excuse. Only a note from your doctor will make you exempt.
Right now, there is no government vaccine mandate in Georgia.
There are no plans for one, but Georgia law allows the government to issue a vaccine mandate. And in a pandemic, religious exemptions are not allowed.
Some healthcare firms in Georgia have long required workers to get vaccinated for infectious diseases like the flu. Legal experts said those companies often do allow exemptions for both medical and religious reasons.
"In my estimation, it would be appropriate for employers in those situations dealing with patients to mandate employees get vaccinated," Khan said.
The Georgia Health Care Association represents many of the assisted living and long-term care facilities in the state.
Director of Communications Devon Barill said, "We are not aware of any long-term care communities in Georgia that have made COVID-19 vaccination a condition of continued employment."
Instead, some members are offering staff bonuses and raffle prizes for vaccinated staff.
So far, no private business in Georgia has announced requirements that customers be vaccinated. But legal experts agreed those companies could do so if they wished, just like they do when requiring shoes or shirts for customers.
First, to avoid lawsuits, they advised the mandate should allow for religious and medical exemptions. And they’d have to determine how customers could prove they’ve been vaccinated.
Currently, there is no national COVID vaccination ID, only a handwritten card listing which COVID vaccine was administered.
"I think it would be very difficult for business owners to enforce that type of policy," admitted Satz.
But both law professors agree there will be pressure on some businesses to make customers feel safe.
"With a lot of people resistant to vaccines, there’s a question of trust," Khan said. "Do you trust going out a crowded stadium? Do you trust going to a crowded restaurant if you don’t know whether the people sitting next to you are vaccinated?"
Said Satz, "For small businesses in particular, vaccination may be the only way to stay afloat. To keep their doors open."
This paper card is the only proof of COVID-19 vaccination, making it a challenge for private businesses to require proof of immunization for customers if they choose. Some states are considering a digital "vaccine passport" you could have on yo
Unless they claim an exemption, all Georgia students are already required to get multiple vaccinations for diseases like polio or hepatitis B.
Some of the COVID vaccines are currently being tested on children. Both law professors agreed children could be required to be COVID-immunized once those vaccines are deemed safe.
And definitely once the word "emergency" is no longer part of the COVID vaccine conversation.
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