HARRISBURG — A Republican-crafted bill to ban so-called COVID-19 “vaccine passports” in some cases and to restrict the health secretary’s actions during health emergencies was vetoed Thursday by Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor.
The measure split both legislative chambers along party lines last month, and Gov. Tom Wolf had previously said he would veto the proposal.
With millions of Pennsylvanians still unvaccinated, many seemingly intent on remaining so, legislative Republicans wanted to prevent what they view as stigmatizing policies that require proof of vaccination in violation of health privacy.
The bill would have kept colleges and universities that receive state money from mandating proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter buildings, attend class in person or undertake any activity. State and local governmental entities would have been similarly restricted, and governments would not have been allowed to include coronavirus vaccine status on ID cards.
It also would have kept the health secretary from ordering closures or directing people who have not been exposed to a contagion to physically distance, wear a mask, quarantine or restrict their travel. The Wolf administration believes the bill, if passed, would have applied to all cases, not just during the current pandemic.
State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, the bill’s prime sponsor, said she was disappointed by the veto.
“What we consistently heard from many individuals is that they felt that was government overreach and that was something that they were not comfortable seeing,” she said.
In Wolf’s message to the Legislature announcing the veto, he called the bill contradictory, misguided and irresponsible, putting at particular risk residents of long-term care facilities and those with compromised immune systems.
He warned that medical providers and the wider public would have been prevented from getting important information about vaccination rates and vaccine efficacy, because the bill would have limited the Health Department’s ability to collect vaccine and immunization information for the Statewide Immunization Information System.
“As we have seen with COVID-19 and other disease outbreaks, public health response measures are critical in saving lives of vulnerable residents,” Wolf wrote.
Universal mask wearing, social distancing and worker safety policies have been critical to combatting the pandemic, Wolf said.
Republicans pushed through a pair of state constitutional amendments that voters approved in May to effectively end the governor’s declaration of disaster emergency, but Wolf says many of the pandemic mitigation efforts are under his health secretary’s authority in the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law.
Wolf’s office has said he will not move to establish vaccine passports by the government but believes private entities, venues and businesses should be able to set their own rules about vaccine status.
“Short-sighted legislation to tie the hands of people dedicated to public health will only make infectious diseases more difficult to fight,” he said.
Wolf also vetoed a bill to let judges hire private collection agencies to pursue overdue court fines and costs.
The court costs bill would have applied after a defendant failed to appear for a court hearing on the status of restitution and other court-related financial costs.
Much of the state’s unpaid costs, fees and fines are traffic fines from people who live in other counties and therefore have a reduced motivation to pay what they owe.
State court officials say there are about 65,000 cases that owe money, a total of some $16.3 million. The overdue costs and fines are growing by about $1.6 million a year, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.