20220107-LOC-Legislature screengrab

Members of the N.H. House gather in Manchester to consider legislation on Thursday, as shown in this screengrab. Some were wearing yellow scarves to signal support for a school choice measure, House Bill 607. The bill was tabled, 187-170.

Legislation to ban COVID-19 vaccination requirements in New Hampshire, one of dozens of pending bills that would limit the government’s response to the pandemic, is on hold for now.

The N.H. House voted, 213-142, on Thursday to table, or delay consideration of, the measure, House Bill 255, whose prime sponsor is Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill. It remains pending and is subject to future action.

Many Republicans support the proposal, saying it’s necessary to block overly intrusive federal attempts to force people to get the vaccine, while Democratic opponents say business people deserve the right to require their own workers to be vaccinated.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu sides with giving companies this discretion.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health is among New Hampshire employers to mandate COVID immunization among their workforce. The Lebanon-based health system required its 13,000 employees, including those at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, to be vaccinated against the disease as a condition of employment effective Sept. 30.

The dichotomy between the two political parties’ approaches to the pandemic has already been on display in this year’s legislative session, which began Wednesday in a conference center in Manchester.

Many unmasked Republicans are on one side of the sprawling room, masked Democrats are on the other side, and there’s a third area for a small number of masked Republicans, said Rep. Andrew Maneval, D-Harrisville.

Representatives normally meet in their own chamber in the Statehouse in Concord, but the alternate location was selected to allow more room for social distancing.

Lawmakers approved a bill Wednesday for reimbursement of their mileage to and from the temporary meeting site.

In speaking against that measure, Rep. Mike Sylvia, R-Belmont, made a statement that runs counter to the assessment of public health experts worldwide.

“This bill further perpetuates a pandemic that has come to an end,” he said.

COVID-19 continues to cause hospitalizations and deaths in New Hampshire, around the country and around the world. More than 830,000 people have died in the U.S. from the virus.

Maneval said he was surprised by Sylvia’s words.

“I mean, all you have to do is look at any newspaper, any hospital waiting room, any set of statistics coming out of any responsible body, and you know what we are facing right now,” he said.

Maneval, whose district covers Dublin, Harrisville, Jaffrey and Roxbury, said it wasn’t clear why the proposal to ban vaccine mandates was one of several tabled at the request of various representatives without explanation on Thursday. A delay would allow more time to see what the courts decide on lawsuits that so far have stalled imposition of the federal mandates.

If the bill passes and is signed into law, its effect against these requirements, if they clear legal challenge, would be unclear because federal law normally trumps state law.

One of the federal mandates would require COVID-19 vaccinations or regular virus testing for employees of companies that employ at least 100 people. The other would require vaccinations for workers of health-care institutions that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

If the House passed HB 255, it would have to clear the Senate and go before Sununu for his signature to become law.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, praised the bill in a statement addressed to President Biden.

“This is the first step in pushing back against your vastly overreaching federal government and ensuring that Granite Staters who choose to exercise their right to health freedom will not lose their job,” he said.

But Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, said in a statement that the bill amounts to denial of science and promotion of conspiracy theories and would interfere with the ability of companies, schools and other organizations to protect their employees and customers with a safe and effective vaccination.

“Denying private businesses and organizations this right is not the New Hampshire way,” he said.

Other pending bills would allow families to opt out of all school vaccination requirements for philosophical reasons, change the vaccine registry to keep people off the list unless they opt in, ban state and local mask mandates and prohibit businesses from requiring patrons to produce vaccination documentation.

Rick Green can be reached at rgreen@keenesentinel.com or 603-355-8567.