Gov. Greg Abbott bans government mandates on COVID-19 vaccines regardless of whether they have full FDA approval

A COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card sits on a table at a vaccine clinic held in partnership between the Central Texas Food Bank and University of Texas in Austin on July 21, 2021.
A COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card sits on a table at a vaccine clinic held in partnership between the Central Texas Food Bank and University of Texas in Austin on July 21, 2021.

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Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday announced an executive order banning government COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Texas regardless of a vaccine’s approval status with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

He also said he was adding the issue to the agenda for the current special session of the Texas Legislature.

The order comes two days after the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine. That raised questions about the fate of a previous Abbott order that prohibited vaccine mandates, but only for those under emergency authorization.

Abbott’s latest order is simple, saying “no governmental entity can compel any individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.” The order preserves exceptions for places like nursing homes and state-supported living centers.

At the same time, Abbott asked lawmakers to consider legislation addressing whether state or local governments could issue vaccine mandates and, if so, which exemptions should apply.

“Vaccine requirements and exemptions have historically been determined by the legislature, and their involvement is particularly important to avoid a patchwork of vaccine mandates across Texas,” Abbott said in a statement.

Lawmakers are currently in their second special session, and time is limited to make progress on the 17-item agenda that Abbott previously announced. The House finally restored quorum last week after Democrats staged a nearly six-week protest of the GOP’s elections bill, and the current session is set to end Sept. 5.

Abbott’s order largely deals with governmental entities, though it says a "public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds" cannot require a "consumer" to provide vaccination proof to receive a service or enter a place.

Private businesses are still banned from requiring vaccination proof from customers under the new state law, Senate Bill 968. Neither Abbott’s latest order nor the law address vaccine requirements for private business employees.

An Abbott spokesperson, Renae Eze, confirmed private businesses still have the option of mandating vaccines for their workers, saying, "Private businesses don't need government running their business."

Abbott’s last order regarding vaccine requirements, issued July 29, said “no governmental entity can compel any individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine administered under an emergency use authorization.” While there is a new state law that acted as a backstop for Abbott’s previous order if a vaccine received full approval, it was not as sweeping as the order and left the door open to new mandates.

There specifically appeared to be the fresh potential for cities, counties and school districts to require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. San Antonio Independent School District had already announced mandatory employee vaccinations, prompting a lawsuit from Attorney General Ken Paxton.

District officials said Wednesday they will move forward with the mandate — despite Abbott's latest order.

“We strongly believe that the safest path forward as a school district is for all staff to become vaccinated against COVID-19,” the district said in a statement.

While there were not many other governmental entities that moved quickly to issue vaccine mandates after Monday's Pfizer announcement, local officials had expressed hope that the full approval would at least prompt more people to voluntarily seek out the vaccine. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, said Wednesday evening she was "incredibly disappointed" with the new order from the GOP governor.

"Once again, just as a new weapon becomes available in this fight, it's taken away," Hidalgo tweeted. "We deserve better."

As the pandemic has surged again in Texas, Abbott has broadly resisted vaccine and masks requirements, prohibiting local officials from issuing them. That stance has been particularly controversial with school districts, several of which have defied the governor and instituted mask requirements. Paxton has vowed to fight all of them in court.

Key pandemic metrics in Texas continue to reach levels not seen since the last spike in the winter. There were 15,516 new cases Tuesday and 13,666 hospitalizations Monday. The seven-day average of the state’s positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — registered at 15.8% on Monday, declining but still above the 10% threshold that Abbott previously has flagged as dangerous.

The number of vaccine doses reported each day has been slowly rising, but the state is still in the back of the pack nationally, with 46.2% of Texans fully vaccinated as of Monday.

Joshua Fechter contributed reporting.

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