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Top US court blocks Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses

A demonstrator holds a “Freedoms & Mandates Don’t Mix” sign outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (Getty Images)

In a major blow to the Joe Biden administration, the US Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the government’s COVID-19 vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses in the country.

The mandate required workers at large American companies to be vaccinated or masked and tested on the weekly basis, which many saw as improper imposition on the lives and health of people.

The court ruled 6-3 with six conservative judges in the majority and three liberal judges supporting the controversial move that would affect more than 80 million American employees.

It was 5-4 vote to allow the healthcare worker rule, which requires vaccination for about 10.3 million workers at 76,000 healthcare facilities, including hospitals that take money from the Medicare and Medicaid government health insurance programs for elderly, disabled and low-income Americans.

Biden showed disappointment with the court's decision, saying it is now up to states and employers to decide whether to require workers "to take the simple and effective step of getting vaccinated."

In a statement, Biden said the court's decision allowing the healthcare worker mandate "will save lives" and that his administration will enforce it, with February deadline to get vaccinated under the mandate.

"I call on business leaders to immediately join those who have already stepped up - including one third of Fortune 100 companies - and institute vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers, and communities," he said.

Former US President Donald Trump welcomed the court's decision, sayinf vaccine mandates "would have further destroyed the economy".

"We are proud of the Supreme Court for not backing down," he said in a statement. "No mandates!"

The judgment came after the court heard arguments last Friday in the legal fight over temporary mandates issued by two federal agencies in November meant to spur vaccination rates and make workplaces and healthcare facilities safer.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued the rule affecting large businesses required vaccines or weekly COVID-19 tests for employees.

The court's ruling said this rule was not an ordinary use of federal power. "It is instead a significant encroachment on the lives – and health - of a vast number of employees," it said, downplaying the risk COVID-19 poses in workplaces, comparing it instead to "day-to-day" crime and pollution hazards.

"Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life-simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock - would significantly expand OSHA's regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization," the court said in the ruling.

The state of Ohio and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) had challenged the rule, representing employees, asking the judges to block the move.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote on behalf of the liberal justices that the decision "stymies the federal government's ability to counter the unparalleled threat that COVID-19 poses to our nation's workers."

"Today's decision is welcome relief for America's small businesses, who are still trying to get their business back on track since the beginning of the pandemic," Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB's legal arm, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Earlier this week, frustrated with the government’s poor response to the rising tide of new COVID-19 cases, Democratic lawmakers in the US urged the Biden administration to do better in curbing the pandemic.

Democratic Congress members, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Tim Ryan of Ohio, called for purchasing and distributing domestically manufactured KN95 masks to any American household requesting them, saying the costs should be covered by previously allocated COVID-19 funds.

“We strongly encourage the administration to take the opportunity to prevent further loss of life... by leveraging the federal government's substantial authority to prioritize American-made masks and PPE," the pair said in a letter to Biden on Wednesday.

The US has been grappling with the highly contagious Omicron variant of coronavirus, pushing the daily load of infections and deaths to record levels.

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