Gov. Greg Abbott Signs Bill to Punish Businesses that Require Proof of Covid-19 Vaccination

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Abbott's signature means that businesses that require so-called vaccine passports can't get state contracts and could lose state licenses or operating permits.

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Texas businesses that require customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will be denied state contracts and could lose their licenses or operating permits under legislation Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Monday.

“Texas is open 100%, and we want to make sure you have the freedom to go where you want without limits,” Abbott said before signing the law, in a video he posted Monday on Twitter. “Vaccine passports are now prohibited in the Lone Star State.”

Senate Bill 968 by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, is a sweeping piece of legislation passed in the final days of the legislative session that includes a clause banning businesses from requiring proof of the vaccine from their customers.

Those that violate the ban may not contract with the state, and state agencies that oversee various sectors of business may decide to make compliance with the state law a condition of getting licensed or permitted.

Just under half of all Texans have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. About 36.5% of Texans are fully vaccinated.

Abbott issued an executive order in April banning state agencies, political subdivisions and organizations receiving public funds from creating "vaccine passports" or otherwise requiring someone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccine in order to receive services.

Businesses may still implement “COVID-19 screening and infection control protocols in accordance with state and federal law to protect public health,” according to the new law, which goes into effect immediately.

Abbott’s signature on the new law comes as Carnival Cruise Line announced Monday that it would be restarting its cruises leaving from Galveston in July but only allow vaccinated passengers on board, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it will allow the cruise industry to restart on the condition that 95% of crew members and 95% of customers are vaccinated. The CDC shut down cruise lines in March 2020.

Carnival Vista sails out of Galveston on July 3, followed by Carnival Breeze on July 15. It was unclear Monday how the new Texas law would affect those plans.

“We are evaluating the legislation recently signed into law in Texas regarding vaccine information,” Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen said in an email, according to the Houston Chronicle. “The law provides exceptions for when a business is implementing COVID protocols in accordance with federal law, which is consistent with our plans to comply with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s guidelines.”

Miami-based Carnival, Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and other cruise companies are still in a standoff with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over restarting their cruises with only vaccinated passengers in spite of new legislation that DeSantis signed in May that bans companies from requiring proof of vaccination from customers.

“We appreciate the progress and support for our U.S. restart from the CDC and other key federal agencies; however, the current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very difficult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. “As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.”

The Florida law fines the businesses $5,000 for each customer required to do so. Norweigan has threatened to leave Florida if it is fined by the state for complying with CDC guidelines and checking vaccine status of its passengers.

Norwegian said Monday it would be restarting its cruises from Miami in August with fully vaccinated passengers and crew. The company does not currently operate out of Galveston but plans to start next year.

Correction, June 7, 2021: A previous version of this story misstated the percentage of Texans who are fully vaccinated. It is about 36.5%, not 45%.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/07/texas-vaccine-passports-covid-19/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Karen Brooks Harper is a health and human services reporter for The Texas Tribune

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