SALT LAKE CITY — Nic Trujillo, one of more than 40,000 federal employees in Utah, welcomed the Biden administration's new requirement that the government's workforce be vaccinated against COVID-19 because he's heard about too many new cases of the deadly virus among his colleagues at the massive Internal Revenue Service center in Ogden.
"To be honest, I absolutely love it," said Trujillo, who got the shots himself in March. "On a daily basis, we get emails stating there's been a positive test on whatever floor. To me, at this point, we're already seeing the vaccines are working, especially with this delta variant that's coming through."
President Joe Biden announced Thursday that all federal employees must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing for the virus along with other restrictions, joining other entities including New York and California that have imposed a similar mandate for their government workers.
The federal mandate applies to federal employees and onsite contractors, but the president is encouraging private businesses to follow what the administration called "this strong model," offering reimbursements to small- and medium-sized businesses for giving employees paid leave to get family members vaccinated.
Biden is also calling on state and local governments to offer their residents a $100 incentive for COVID-19 shots. A similar incentive given to employees by Kroger grocery stores resulted in vaccination rates rising from 50% to 75%, the White House said.
"With freedom comes responsibility, so please, exercise responsible judgement. Get vaccinated for yourself, for the people you love, for your country," the Democratic president said during a White House speech, adding it's an "American blessing" that the nation has plenty of vaccine doses available.
"We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen more quickly and more successfully," Biden said. "We all know that in our gut. With incentives and mandates, we can make a huge difference and save a lot of lives."
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has expressed enthusiasm for vaccination incentives, including Ohio's "Vax-a-Million" lottery that gave away million-dollar prizes as well as full-ride college scholarships, but state legislative leaders have balked at giveaways even though they can be paid for with federal coronavirus relief funds.
Cox had no immediate comment on the president's announcement.
Meanwhile, vaccinations are lagging and cases are climbing in Utah. Thursday, the Utah Department of Health reported 1,113 new cases of COVID-19 in the state — the highest case count since mid-February — along with three additional deaths from the virus.
The federal mandate follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation earlier this week that all Americans living in hotspots, including those already vaccinated against COVID-19, wear masks indoors and at K-12 schools to stop the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus fueling the current outbreak.
That's sparked renewed debate over mask mandates, with restrictions restored in places around the country, including in Salt Lake City, where Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed an order Wednesday requiring city employees and members of the public to wear face coverings indoors on city property regardless of their vaccination status.
Utah lawmakers have already said no to mandates
The Utah Legislature ended a statewide mask mandate in April and made it difficult for local entities to impose COVID-19 restrictions beyond government buildings. State lawmakers also passed a bill last March prohibiting state or local governmental entities from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.
The ban on coronavirus vaccine mandates in Utah, which also applies to public schools and state colleges and universities, does provide exceptions for some public health and medical settings and does not apply to private businesses.
The ban's sponsor, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said if it's the unvaccinated who are getting sick from the virus and they've decided "the risk of getting COVID is less than the risk of getting sick from the vaccine, I think we need to respect that."
Along with increased COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus are also headed up, but Spendlove said "it's hard to assess that. I'm not a health expert. So it's always a tragedy when someone dies or gets hurt. But that's the risk they want to take."
He said while he and his family are all vaccinated against the virus, mandating the shots for those who don't want them is "saying that we should protect people from themselves. I don't think we as the government should be doing that."
Trujillo, though, said because he is immunocompromised, he doesn't want to have to worry about whether his co-workers are vaccinated when he's in the office. One, he said, "always thought COVID was a hoax and vaccines don't work," and didn't change her mind even after getting the virus and seeing her sister hospitalized with it.
With freedom comes responsibility, so please, exercise responsible judgement. Get vaccinated for yourself, for the people you love, for your country.
–President Joe Biden
Getting the vaccine, as well as wearing a mask, once again mandatory for federal workers, "isn't just about me. We're in this together. We should be acting like Americans," Trujillo said. "It's not us the people, they the people, I the people, it's we the people and we should start acting like it."
For Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, it's surprising that Utah isn't at the forefront in the fight against COVID-19, given the values celebrated as the state's pioneer heritage.
"We're struggling," Karpowitz said. "Utahns will likely not have to rely not just on the tradition of rugged individualism but also on our tradition of strong communities and of working together to meet common needs. That is a tradition of Utah, too. That goes back to our state's heritage in a very big way."
Not embracing that tradition when it comes to the coronavirus is "problematic," the political science professor said.
"I just really do believe that Utah has a vibrant heritage and tradition on this and yet we don't seem to be willing to call upon," he said. "The Legislature especially seems unwilling to do anything other than sort of highlight individual choice as the one and only value. Which is an important value, but it's not the only value."
The new federal vaccination mandate isn't likely to change that, Karpowitz said, unless other Republican-led states get on board. That may also be a longshot, given Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' vow to fight virus restriction made in a speech to the American Legislative Exchange Council conference at a Salt Lake City hotel.
Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller said in a statement the organization "advocates for businesses to have the right and flexibility to make decisions in the best interests of their employees and customers with regards to vaccination, masks, physical distancing, or other health protocols in their individual places of business."
Miller said the response of Utah businesses may vary.
"In the current environment, with varying rates of vaccination, transmission and hospitalization, what may be prudent for one business is not necessarily best for all business," he said, citing the economic benefits of empowering individuals as well as businesses to do what they think is best.