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U.S. Supreme Court blocks Biden's COVID-19 vaccination, testing rules for large businesses

The U.S. Supreme Court has stopped the Biden administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.

At the same time, top court allows vaccine mandate for most health-care workers

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the administration's COVID-19 response at the White House on Thursday. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court has stopped a major push by the Biden administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.

At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health-care workers in the United States.

The court's orders on Thursday during a spike in coronavirus cases was a mixed bag for the administration's efforts to boost the vaccination rate among Americans.

The court's conservative majority concluded that the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people would have been affected and OSHA estimated that the rule would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.

"OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here," the conservative justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.

A health worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot in Oakland, Pa., on Wednesday. (Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/The Associated Press)

In dissent, the court's three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgments for health experts.

"Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the court displaces the judgments of the government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies," Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.

President Joe Biden said he was "disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law."

Biden called on businesses to institute their own vaccination requirements, noting that a third of Fortune 100 companies already have done so.

'Significant victory for employers'

When crafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always anticipated legal challenges — and privately some harboured doubts that it could withstand them.

The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and encouraging private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.

The OSHA regulation had initially been blocked by a federal appeals court in New Orleans, then allowed to take effect by a federal appellate panel in Cincinnati.

Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.

People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site in Boston on Wednesday. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press)

The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, called the Supreme Court's decision "a significant victory for employers."

The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide scraped by on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the liberals to form a majority.

The mandate covers virtually all health care workers in the country, applying to providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It affects 10.4 million workers at 76,000 health-care facilities as well as home health-care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.

Biden said that decision by the court "will save lives."

WATCH | Vaccine could be difference between 'life and death,' says Biden: 

Biden: vaccine could be difference between 'life and death'

5 months ago
Duration 1:06
U.S. President Joe Biden issued a plea to the unvaccinated Tuesday to get the COVID-19 shot, saying they are putting their loved ones at risk and causing hospitals to become overrun again.

In an unsigned opinion, the court wrote: "The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have." It said the "latter principle governs" in the health-care arena.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent that the case was about whether the administration has the authority "to force health-care workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo." He said the administration hadn't shown convincingly that Congress gave it that authority.

Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett signed onto Thomas' opinion. Alito wrote a separate dissent that the other three conservatives also joined.

From left: U.S. Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Elena Kagan, John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch, Stephen Breyer, Amy Coney Barrett and Sonia Sotomayor pose for a group photo in April 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times/AP)

Decisions by federal appeals courts in New Orleans and St. Louis had blocked the mandate in about half the states. The administration already was taking steps to enforce it elsewhere.

More than 208 million Americans, 62.7 per cent of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine justices have gotten booster shots.

The courthouse remains closed to the public, and lawyers and reporters are asked for negative test results before being allowed inside the courtroom for arguments, though vaccinations are not required.

The justices heard arguments on the challenges last week. Their questions then hinted at the split verdict that they issued Thursday.

A separate vaccine mandate for federal contractors, on hold after lower courts blocked it, has not been considered by the Supreme Court.

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