Georgia Push on COVID Rules Aims at Vaccines, School Masks

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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia public school students are now free of mask mandates for five years, while a one-year ban on letting governments and schools require vaccines against COVID-19 neared Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk Tuesday.

The measures are cornerstones of the Georgia version of a nationwide Republican reaction against requirements stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, with supporters saying parental and individual choice should rule as many run for reelection.

The Republican Kemp on Tuesday signed Senate Bill 514, which would let parents opt their children out of school mask mandates for the next five years. Proclaiming that “it’s time for a complete return to normalcy for Georgia students” as he touted his record of issuing few restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Kemp said parents should be able to make key decisions for their own child’s learning.

“Today, we’re taking another important step to ensure that our students are not the victims of those that continue to play pandemic politics,” Kemp said. “The Unmask Georgia Students Act guarantees the rights of parents to make health care decisions in the best interests of their children.”

Many of Georgia’s 180 school districts never had a mask mandate, and of those that did, almost all have dropped them since January as cases of COVID-19 have fallen, although some still encourage mask wearing. One that still has a mandate is the 52,000-student Clayton County district in Atlanta’s southern suburbs, which said Friday it would obey the law.

A number of Republican-controlled states banned mask and vaccine mandates last year, part of a broad conservative backlash against mandates meant to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness. Georgia lawmakers did not act last year, but the GOP-controlled General Assembly has been more amenable to the measures in this election year. That impulse animated the House’s 99-67 passage of Senate Bill 345 on Tuesday. The measure goes back to the Senate for final approval after a slight change by the House.

“People who claim a variety of political ideologies consider mandates to be an unacceptable infringement of personal freedom and choice, despite having a personal belief in the safety and necessity of the vaccine,” said Rep. Bonnie Rich, a Suwanee Republican. “This is about being American, not Republican or Democrat.”

She said Georgia should prevent government agencies from requiring so-called vaccine passports for members of the public to get services.

Democratic opponents say the actions are promoting distrust in science and risking the health of others who don’t make the same choices. Georgia has the seventh lowest vaccination rate among states, according to federal data.

“If this proposal becomes law, there will be some Georgians, perhaps even in your own district, that will surely die that would have otherwise lived if we required vaccinations,” said Rep. Billy Mitchell, a Stone Mountain Democrat who spoke on the House floor against banning governmental vaccine requirements.

The measure excludes health care facilities that are subject to federal mandates for their employees to get vaccinated to continue receiving federal payments. That exemption was key because many Georgia hospitals are owned by city or county health care authorities. It also could exclude public universities and some other state agencies if they lose a lawsuit against a federal attempt to require vaccinations of federal contractors.

The bill has no effect on private businesses and some large employers have required their workers to get vaccinated. Among government agencies, the cities of Brookhaven and Decatur as well as the Decatur city school system are the only known examples of non-health-care government agencies requiring inoculation.

Rep. Don Parsons, a Marietta Republican, asked if Georgia National Guard members would still be required to be vaccinated under the bill. Rich said she believed that would be the case.

Democrats said Republicans are pandering to anti-vaccine rhetoric and setting the precedent to weaken other vaccine requirements for public schools and colleges.

“While this bill preemptively targets a single vaccine, the speeches you’re hearing today and the rhetoric, destabilize the security of all vaccines for all Georgia communities and that impact will be inequitable,” said Rebecca Mitchell, a Snellville Democrat and epidemiologist.

Republicans rejected that accusation, with all the speakers on the bill saying they had been vaccinated.

“You can be very pro-vaccine and still support this bill,” said Rep. Mark Newton, an Augusta Republican and emergency room physician.

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