In January 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine mandate that required employees at large companies (100+ workers) to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing.
But, according to the Supreme Court, states and cities can require vaccine mandates in certain instances. State lawmakers have the authority to introduce laws that would require vaccine mandates, or ban them.
In Rhode Island, several state legislators are vying to push statewide mandates even further, proposing to penalize residents who choose to remain unvaccinated.
VERIFY viewer Cameron wrote to us asking: “Does a Rhode Island bill actually say that unvaccinated residents would be taxed more?”
Yes, Rhode Island Senate Bill S2552 says that residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine who opt against receiving it could face fines and pay more income tax, unless they receive an exemption. But, that bill has not passed into law.
WHAT WE FOUND
Rhode Island Senate Bill S2552 was introduced to the state legislature on March 1 by state Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence). As of April 26, the bill had not been passed into law and was under review by the Senate Health and Human Services committee.
The proposed bill states any eligible Rhode Island resident would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and if they choose not to, they could face a $50 monthly fine and pay double the state income tax. Fines for unvaccinated children under the age of 16 would be imposed on their parents or guardians.
According to the bill, any resident could petition for an exemption from the statewide mandate. The petition must be signed by three licensed physicians stating that the person is not a fit subject for immunization against COVID-19 for medical reasons. The Rhode Island Department of Health would have the power to investigate and potentially reject the petition.
Employers would be responsible to show proof of taxation to the state of Rhode Island government, according to the proposed bill. Any in-person worker would have to be in compliance with COVID-19 mandates, but the requirement could be waived for remote workers. This means remote workers might not necessarily face penalties, but it would depend on the employer.
If an employer violates the COVID-19 mandate under the new bill, they would have to pay a $5,000 penalty per violation.
The state Department of Health and Department of Revenue would be responsible for ensuring compliance, but the current bill does not specify the process of collecting the fines or additional taxes.
Bell tweeted that he had been facing harsh criticism from “antivax advocates” since he introduced the bill. He shared a screenshot of an expletive-laden email he received that also contained threats to his family.
In a letter to constituents, state Sen. Jessica De La Cruz (R-North Smithfield) said she would never support such legislation.
“I have not, nor will I ever support, legislation that coerces Rhode Islanders into making medical decisions or face steep financial damages. I hear my constituents and others around the state loud and clear—this is dangerous legislation and sends the message that our government doesn’t trust you to make the right choice for you and your family. This is an unconscionable overreach of legislative powers. The good news is this legislation has little chance of passing. I won't rule it out, but I don't believe it will pass. That said, I'm not taking it for granted, and neither should you,” the letter said.
According to the State of Rhode Island General Assembly website, the time it takes for a bill to become law varies. The bill is currently being reviewed by a Senate committee, and from there the committee would have to recommend next steps for the legislation. The committee could:
- Recommend passage of the bill as introduced;
- Recommend passage with amendments;
- Recommend passage of a different version of the bill entirely;
- Forward the bill to a different committee for their recommendation;
- Recommend the bill is indefinitely postponed
- Offer no recommendation, but allow the bill to move forward, in which case it stands or falls on its own merit.
If the bill moves out of committee, it would also have to be voted for approval in the House and Senate before going to the governor for signing.
Bell did not return VERIFY’s request for comment.