A federal appeals panel temporarily blocked a new coronavirus vaccine mandate for large businesses, in a sign that the Biden administration may face an uphill battle in its biggest effort yet to combat the virus among the American workforce.
The stay, issued by a three-judge panel from the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Louisiana, doesn’t have an immediate impact. The first major deadline in the new rule is December 5, when companies with at least 100 employees must require unvaccinated employees to wear masks indoors. Businesses have until January 4 to mandate Covid vaccinations or start weekly testing of their workers.
But Saturday’s move provided momentum for a wide coalition of opponents of the rule, who have argued that it is unconstitutional. A group of businesses, religious groups, advocacy organisations and several states, including Louisiana and Texas, had filed a petition on Friday with the court, arguing that the administration had overstepped its authority.
It was unclear whether the stay would be a procedural blip for the Biden administration or the first step in the unwinding of the mandate.
At the core of the legal challenge is the question of whether Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exceeded its authority in issuing the rule and whether such a mandate would need to be passed by Congress. A similar issue was in play when a Texas court in late 2016 halted an Obama-era Labor Department rule that would have made millions more Americans eligible for overtime pay. The Trump administration, which took office the next year, said it would not defend the overtime rule.
The suit against the mandate stated that President Biden “set the legislative policy” of substantially increasing the number of Americans covered by vaccination requirements, and “then set binding rules enforced with the threat of large fines.”
“That is a quintessential legislative act — and one wholly unrelated to the purpose of OSHA itself, which is protecting workplace safety,” the suit said. “Nowhere in OSHA’s enabling legislation does Congress confer upon it the power to end pandemics.”
A separate lawsuit against the new rule was also filed on Friday in the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis by 11 Republican-led states, among them Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Utah.
The Fifth Circuit panel said in a brief order, signed by a deputy clerk, that the judges were blocking the regulation “because the petitions give cause to believe there are grave statutory and constitutional issues with the mandate.” It said the rule was suspended “pending further action by this court.”
The two-page order directed the Biden administration to respond by 5 p.m. on Monday to the group’s request for a permanent injunction.
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