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OKLAHOMA CITY — Tensions grew Monday between conservative Republicans and the state’s business community over whether employers should have the power to impose COVID-19 vaccination policies.

Chad Warmington, president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, said Monday that he hoped that the long-time pro-business Legislature wasn’t planning to reverse course due to a global pandemic and overreach into the private sector.

“Allowing a business to make an organization-specific decision on vaccination policies to protect the health and safety of their employees and clientele is the right decision for our state,” he said. “Setting a one-size-fits-all policy for every business in Oklahoma is government overreach into the private sector."

Just two days earlier, though, nearly a thousand maskless Oklahomans crowded into the state Capitol to demand lawmakers adopt such restrictions. During the rally, they cheered and vowed to contact lawmakers and Gov. Kevin Stitt in a bid to pressure him to prohibit COVID-19 vaccine mandates. They also demanded that lawmakers return for a special session to settle the issue.

State Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, meanwhile, continued Monday to circulate a petition seeking the signatures of two-thirds of lawmakers in the House and Senate in a bid to force legislative leaders to return to special session by the end of August. He said some health care employees, who don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccination, will begin to lose their jobs in September.

It wasn’t clear how many signatures Roberts had gathered. He did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

When reached by phone Monday, State Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, said that lawmakers already “regulate the heck out of businesses as it is” when asked whether the anti-vaccine effort amounted to increased regulations for employers.

Hamilton, who helped organize the weekend rally, then said he’d call a reporter back. He didn’t.

On Saturday, he said it didn’t matter if the COVID-19 vaccine ultimately gained approval from the FDA because “if it violates my conscience, you, the government or business, cannot compel me to take it.”

He also urged his supporters to send Oklahoma leaders a message that they aren’t going to put up with their “shenanigans.”

“You (the government) have the opportunity to hit one out of the park if you would take action to protect us from mandatory vaccines,” Hamilton said. “That’s no telling what you could accomplish. There’s no telling what God would bless us with if we will but legislate and govern righteously.”

State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, who was a lifelong Republican until about six years ago, said he no longer recognizes the current Republican Party.

“Here you have a party that used to believe in private enterprise and capitalism and in small government, and is now saying that we should wield the power of government to tell these businesses what they should do with their employees,” he said. “And I don’t understand that.”

Fugate said Oklahoma must provide a stable framework in which businesses can make their own choices.

“If a business believes that it’s in the best interest of their customer base for their employees to be vaccinated, or they believe it’s in the best interest of their employee base for them to implement a vaccine mandate, I’m not sure that it’s an appropriate role for government to be involved in,” he said.

He said the historic way to handle perceived overreach by business has been through unionizing, but said that the U.S. Supreme Court more than a century ago laid out that vaccines can be mandated in certain circumstances.

Fugate, who is vaccinated and has not signed Roberts’ petition to force a special session, called Saturday’s large rally “foolhardy.”

“I think it shows a clear lack of understanding about how a contagious virus propagates,” he said.

Fugate also said he’s urging Oklahomans to talk to their doctor about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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