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South Carolina Lawmakers Propose Fines or Prison Time for Asking Vaccine Status

The bill could have far-reaching consequences beyond employer rules, one labor law attorney in the state suggested.

A healthcare worker fills out a COVID-19 vaccination card at a community healthcare event in Los Angeles, California, on August 11, 2021.

A bill proposed by the South Carolina state legislature would make it a crime for employers or business owners — and possibly even state residents in general — to ask someone if they have been vaccinated for protection against COVID-19.

The lead sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Mike Burns, defended the proposal by claiming that it would protect state residents’ privacy rights.

“Your private health information is still your private health information,” Burns said to a local news affiliate in the state, adding that he is opposed to private companies imposing vaccine rules for their workers.

“We have a number of employees in different companies that are being terminated because of their vaccination status, they have chosen not to take it,” Burns added.

Rep. William Chumley, a Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill, described it as a “freedom and job protection issue.”

The bill would go beyond prohibiting companies in the state from implementing vaccine rules, however.

The proposal states that “any employee, officer, agent, or other representative of a public, nonprofit, or private entity who inquires about the COVID‑19 vaccination status of any student, employee, member, or anyone else seeking admission on the entity’s premises is guilty of a misdemeanor.” This means that businesses — and potentially even health care facilities — would be banned from inquiring about a person’s coronavirus vaccine status.

If the bill passes, the punishment for asking about someone’s vaccine status would be severe; if an individual is found guilty, they could face a fine of up to $14,000, a prison sentence of up to one year, or both.

Jeremy Summerlin, a Greenville-based labor law attorney, said that the vague language of the bill could have far-reaching consequences.

“When you work it out practically, how it would play out in the real world, it’s insane,” Summerlin said, detailing a number of hypothetical scenarios that could come about as a result of the bill.

“What if you ask your coworker about their vaccination status, and you are just having a conversation?” Summerlin said. “What if you are a nurse and you ask a fellow nurse about it? Do you want the local law enforcement to go in and arrest them because of this law?”

Only 55 percent of South Carolina residents are fully vaccinated, a percentage that is well below the national rate of 63 percent. The state is currently facing a surge in COVID-19 cases, with an average of 16,084 cases being identified a day — a 35 percent increase from two weeks ago, and a rate that places South Carolina as the third-highest state in the nation in terms of cases per capita.

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