President Joe Biden and Gov. Asa Hutchinson both want more people to get vaccinated.
To date, Hutchinson has tried to accomplish this using carrots. On September 9, Biden added a pretty big stick.
Biden announced that all employers with 100 or more employees would be required to ensure their employees be vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19 weekly.
Biden’s announcement is being described everywhere as a vaccination mandate, which is understandable because he emphasized vaccinations and came down pretty hard on the unvaccinated. But it’s not, actually. It’s a vaccination or testing mandate.
Perhaps he could have described his latest directive this way: The Department of Labor will be requiring all companies with 100 or more employees to be tested weekly, but vaccinated employees are exempt.
Legally, that would have the same effect. Politically, it would have turned down the heat a little because then it would be primarily a testing requirement. But this is a hot time.
Hutchinson, who has traveled the state pleading with Arkansans to get vaccinated, criticized the mandate. On last Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” he said it makes his carrot-based approach harder.
“The problem is that I’m trying to overcome resistance, but the president’s actions in a mandate hardens the resistance,” he said.
Hutchinson called Biden’s actions unprecedented and divisive. The resistance he has seen to the vaccine is based on people’s distrust of the federal government, and this just increases that distrust in a state like Arkansas, he said. He questioned the mandate’s constitutionality and said that previous vaccination requirements in schools have been done at the state level.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who has been running public service announcements encouraging Arkansans to be vaccinated, said she would sue the Biden administration. Hutchinson said Tuesday he would support that effort.
Hutchinson made his remarks to “Meet the Press” at about the time when Arkansas seemed to have turned a corner, or maybe reached a plateau. The past few months have been brutal – on par with the worst of the pandemic here. At the same time, vaccinations increased significantly, to the point this week the state reached 50% of eligible Arkansans being fully vaccinated, with another 12.1% partially so.
Arkansas’ caseload has been down a little bit lately from its peak – and so have vaccinations, although both are still higher than they were earlier in the summer.
Obviously, the bigger the perceived risk of COVID, the more people get vaccinated.
During his weekly press briefing Tuesday, Hutchinson further explained his views on vaccines, and it includes a few sticks. He said he recognizes the federal government’s authority to require military and federal employees to be vaccinated, which Biden has already done. He supports letting states require vaccines in educational and other environments, which has not happened here.
Hutchinson reiterated his support for private businesses having the right to require employees to be vaccinated. Among the most notable companies to do so is Tyson, which is now mandating its employees to be vaccinated after spending $700 million combatting the virus. The company said earlier this month that the percentage of its workforce that is vaccinated had increased from about half to 72%.
How anyone feels about mandates depends on how they feel about the government, the vaccines, and, most importantly, the disease itself.
When the threat is undeniable, governments can compel action – using sticks if necessary. One example is through a military draft, which is how most military service members were enlisted in World War II. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, most Americans agreed about the threat.
This time, we don’t. There has been no Pearl Harbor moment – just a fluctuating wave of caseloads, hospitalizations, deaths and government actions.
Will Biden’s directive have its intended effect of pushing some people to be vaccinated? I’m sure it will. Will it also harden resistance, as Hutchinson says?
And will we continue to treat each other, rather than the virus, as the enemy?
Unfortunately, yes again. It’s a hot time.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics, and whose work appears in 16 Arkansas publications. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at email@example.com . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .