US court halts Biden’s COVID shots plan for companies

The US Federal Court of Appeals has issued a temporary stay on President Joe Biden’s plan for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for employees of businesses.

The mandate says that workers in privately-owned businesses with over 100 employees would have to be fully vaccinated by 4 January, or be required to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks.

Companies are not required to pay for or provide the weekly tests unless they are otherwise required to by state or local laws. The mandate would cover around 84 million employees.

Multiple legal challenges accuse the White House of overstepping its authority, and the stay – if enforced – would be a major setback for Biden’s plan to extend the vaccination as widely as possible and make it safer for people to return to workplaces.

Most pharma companies operating in the US have said they will require all employees and contractors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have medical or religious reasons for opting out and also agree to other measures such as weekly testing.

The legislation to put those plans into practice was unveiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last week, prompting immediate threats of legal action from Republican-led states – including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Utah – as well as some companies and other organisations.

The regulations come with financial penalties ranging from $13,653 per violation to $136,532 if a company is found to have wilfully broken the rules, and provisions to allow federal agents to inspect premises to check if companies are in compliance.

Military and federal employees and contractors are already required to adhere to a similar set of vaccination requirements.

The federal appeals court ruling indicated there are “grave statutory and constitutional” issues with the OSHA rule, although the government’s legal representation has said it is confident the stay will be relaxed as federal safety rules trump state laws. The government must now respond to the stay by Monday (8 November).

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, an outspoken opponent of federal mandates on vaccines as well as masks, applauded the court’s decision in a tweet in which he said: “We will have our day in court to strike down Biden’s unconstitutional abuse of authority.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry meanwhile said in a statement that the court “not only halts Biden from moving forward with his unlawful overreach, but it also commands the judicious review we sought.”

The legal wrangling comes as the US is seeing around 72,000 new cases of COVID-19 infection every day, with a death toll from the virus that now tops 745,000.

Labour Department lawyer Seema Nanda said in a statement issued on Friday that the Biden administration is “fully prepared to defend” the mandate in the courts.

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