LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson effectively approved new legislation on Wednesday that will allow employees to opt out of COVID-19 vaccine requirements, an initiative by their fellow Republicans to challenge federal vaccine mandates .
Hutchinson has allowed the measure to become law without his signature despite concerns about the impact it will have on state businesses. The new law will not come into force until early next year.
In Arkansas, a bill becomes law after being tabled on the governor’s desk for five days without any action. Governors have traditionally used this approach to voice their opposition to legislation without provoking a veto fight with the legislature.
Hutchinson said the delay before the opt-out law takes effect gives the state more time to weigh its impact on businesses and for any legal challenges to be filed.
But he also called the proposal unnecessary and counterproductive.
“The debate on these bills has been detrimental to our goal of increasing vaccination rates in Arkansas,” he told reporters.
The measure requires employers to allow workers to opt out of COVID-19 vaccine requirements if they are tested weekly or can prove they have antibodies to the virus. Health officials have said antibody tests should not be used to assess immunity to the coronavirus and that people who have recovered from COVID-19 should still get vaccinated.
The bill mainly came in response to President Joe Biden’s order that companies with more than 100 employees require workers to get vaccinated or tested every week.
Republicans in other states have also taken steps to block or undermine Biden’s tenure. In neighboring Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting private companies or other entities from requiring vaccines. Calls for special legislative sessions to address vaccine needs have also been heard in Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota.
Even before Biden’s order, some of Arkansas’ biggest employers, such as Bentonville-based Walmart, required some or all employees to get vaccinated. Hutchinson this year signed a law prohibiting state and local governments from requiring vaccination against COVID-19.
Business groups have criticized the withdrawal measure, saying it would in itself be a mandate for companies, forcing companies to choose between breaking state or federal law. Hospital officials said the move could also jeopardize Medicare and Medicaid funding for healthcare facilities.
“The solution is not to put employers in a pressure game between the federal government and the state government,” said Hutchinson, who criticized Biden’s vaccine order. “Employers need the freedom to protect their employees and customers, and the government should not interfere with that freedom through warrants.”
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