More than a dozen states have passed or advanced legislation to place new checks on the powers of public health agencies in the wake of the pandemic.
Mike Fratantuono grew up in a restaurant. Literally.
For decades, Sunset Restaurant in Glen Burnie, Maryland, was the family business. Over the years, he’d done seemingly every job imaginable: busboy, bartender, and butcher; prep cook and plumber; handyman and manager.
Fratantuono says that’s what made it so hard to watch the family’s legacy become a COVID casualty in 2020.
“It kills me. We were supposed to be getting ready to celebrate our 60th anniversary this year, and instead we’re packing up and closing at the end of this month,” Fratantuono told the Washington Post last year. “I try not to get too sentimental about it, because it won’t change a damn thing, but sometimes the stress hits me and my heart starts going like crazy. I get frustrated. It makes me angry.”
Fratantuono is just one of the countless business owners across America who saw their dreams vanish before their eyes in the wake of government lockdowns that crushed their businesses. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, states across the country are advancing legislation to curb the powers of public health departments following one of the most destructive and contentious years in American history.
Reining in Public Health Agencies
In May, the Network for Public Health Law published a report showing that in recent months no fewer than 15 state legislatures have passed or are considering passing measures that would restrict the legal authority of public health departments.
Among the provisions passed or considered are the following:
● Prohibitions on requiring citizens to wear masks;
● Prohibiting health agencies from closing businesses or schools;
● Banning the use of quarantines for people who have not been shown to be sick;
● Preventing state hospitals and universities from requiring vaccinations for employees and students;
● Preventing local governments from exercising emergency powers that are inconsistent with state health department guidelines;
Earlier this year, for example, North Dakota passed legislation making it unlawful for state officials to force citizens to wear masks—just one of a growing number of states to place restrictions on mask orders. In March, Kansas’s legislature passed legislation that removes the governor’s ability to shut down businesses during a public health emergency.
Meanwhile, more than 40 states passed legislation that made it unlawful for health departments to mandate COVID-19 vaccination.
A Serious Threat to Life?
The report concludes that opposition to “reasonable” public health measures poses serious dangers to life and health.
“Legislation to stop expert public health agencies from leading the response to health emergencies creates unforeseen, serious risks to life and health,” the report states. “These laws could make it harder to advance health equity during a pandemic that has disproportionately sickened and killed Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Indigenous Americans.”
Not mentioned in the report, however, are the unintended consequences of the actions taken by public health agencies across the country in 2020. The collateral damage of lockdowns included business closures, job losses, supply disruptions, mass protests, surging violence, increased mental health problems, unprecedented drug overdoses, and a collapse in cancer screenings.