The Hawaii Legislature will be one of the few in the country to require all of its members and staff to be fully vaccinated or submit to weekly Covid-19 tests.

The House rules are set to go into effect Sept. 30 while the Senate’s mandate is slated to begin Sept. 1.

While staff can be required to take the shot or face disciplinary action, including termination, lawmakers themselves can’t be forced to get a Covid-19 vaccine, legislative leaders said.

“Elected officials have to set an example for the rest of the public,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said. “We may have some members that have legitimate medical reasons for not being vaccinated and I understand that. But for those who just refuse to be vaccinated for any reason are not setting a good example.”

In the Senate though, lawmakers can be censured, suspended or expelled if they refuse to be vaccinated or take the weekly test, according to the Senate’s vaccine policy.

Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki watch a large screen tv as Governor Ige gives the State of State address.
Senate President Ron Kouchi, left, and House Speaker Scott Saiki have both implemented vaccine requirements for the Senate and House. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The Legislature’s policies come as other branches of government and some private businesses are imposing mandatory vaccinations or frequent testing.

At the same time, public workers unions are gearing up to challenge the state and county mandates in court. Some Honolulu firefighters, medics, lifeguards and police officers filed a lawsuit last week challenging the city’s mandate.

Gov. David Ige and the four county mayors announced vaccine and testing requirements for public workers on Aug. 5.

The same day, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said in a statement that the Judiciary supports a vaccine mandate and was considering how to implement it for the courts.

But Hawaii’s requirement that elected officials be vaccinated is unusual in the U.S.

Of the 15 states that have mandated vaccines or weekly tests for public employees, only Hawaii and New York are requiring the same of state lawmakers, a review of those states’ policies found.

California’s Assembly has a similar mandate, but not the state Senate. Massachusetts lawmakers are also considering a vaccine mandate after Gov. Charlie Baker announced one for state workers.

Christopher Mooney, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago who studies state level politics and policy in the U.S., said that state legislatures, like Congress, can control their own internal processes. There’s nothing in a state’s constitution that should prevent its legislature from enacting a vaccine mandate, he said.

“This is public health turned politics,” Mooney said.

In some of those states with vaccine mandates, like Colorado, Minnesota and North Carolina, state lawmakers are pushing back against those policies. Opponents have raised concerns over civil liberties and constitutional rights.

That opposition may have caused lawmakers, even in some Democratic states, to hold off on imposing vaccine mandates for their members.

“More than wanting to do things that please their constituents, (politicians) don’t want to do things to displease their constituents,” Mooney said.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said he’s not surprised to see the heads of government in Hawaii in line on this issue. For one, Democrats control the Legislature and Ige is also a Democrat.

“But what’s most critical is we’re an island state,” Kouchi said, adding that the health care capacity on his home island of Kauai can quickly become overrun if cases rise too fast. And residents can’t travel across the state to get access to health care.

“You can’t drive from Lihue to Hilo,” Kouchi said.

Legislature’s Rules

The chief clerk of both chambers will be tasked with administering the new vaccine policies. Narrow exemptions can be made for medical or religious reasons.

The Senate’s policy requires anyone who wants an exemption to go through a consultation process to determine the feasibility of their request or any hardships that taking the vaccine might bring.

House staff is masked and gloved during the COVID-19 pandemic before house floor session. April 8. 2021
It’s not clear how many lawmakers have been vaccinated at this time even as legislative leaders move to impose mandatory vaccination requirements. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Kouchi said implementing the vaccine policy wasn’t a decision he made unilaterally. The Democratic caucus – 24 of the 25 senators – decided to adopt the vaccine policy.

“Our caucus felt it was the prudent thing to do while the cases were rising,” Kouchi said. “What can we do as we try to better protect our community? Have a safer work environment.”

Sen. Kurt Fevella, the chamber’s only Republican, was included in those caucus discussions. He supports the vaccinations and the Senate policy. He even plans to host pop-up vaccination clinics at Puuloa District Park in Ewa Beach. To him, it’s no different from other inoculations that are already required in other settings.

“When we were little kids, we all got our booster shots,” Fevella said.

It’s not clear how many representatives or senators are fully vaccinated.

Kouchi said he hasn’t asked individual members yet and Saiki said he won’t know until the Sept. 30 House deadline.

The House policy doesn’t include any consequences for a representative not being fully vaccinated. Saiki said that he feels the government needs to take the lead in setting mandatory vaccination policies.

He said implementing the policy is necessary to protect the health of lawmakers and those with whom they come in contact.

House Minority Leader Val Okimoto, who supports vaccinations, opposed a similar mandate for public employees issued by Ige and the county mayors.

But she supports the alternative weekly testing as well as Saiki’s decision to allow for exemptions in certain cases.

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