Limiting Government Overreach in a Health Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic posed a serious challenge to Texas and the country as a whole. Because of its extraordinarily rare nature, the pandemic raised some important public policy issues for the first time. A key question that emerged is the extent to which government can impose orders on the public in attempting to combat a pandemic. Although Texas navigated the pandemic successfully and is already rebounding strongly, a key lesson from the pandemic is that is that there must be safeguards against the government infringing on citizens’ rights in the name of protecting public health. The state’s response to the next public health emergency will be even better in light of the following bills the 87th Legislature enacted into law. 

Protecting Doctors, Businesses, and Individuals from Frivolous COVID-19 Lawsuits - SENATE BILL 6 limits the liability of health care providers, manufacturers, retailers, individuals, and educational institutions from lawsuits claiming that their services or products provided in response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused harm, but still allows for meritorious lawsuits. The bill is a necessity given the lack of federal leadership on the issue; without SB 6, many businesses in the state could not re-open or could be forced to close due to the expenses of battling frivolous claims in court. 

SENATE BILL 967 places a time limit on public health orders issued by a health authority. The bill places an automatic 15-day time limit on such orders put in place by unelected county or municipal health officials, unless the (elected) governing body of a municipality or county commissioner’s court votes to extend the order for a longer period. 

SENATE BILL 968 is a crucial bill in the effort to fight government overreach. The bill prohibits businesses from requiring COVID-19 “passports” for customers, which show proof of vaccination; generally prohibits the Texas Medical Board from issuing an order that limits or forbids essential medical procedures; requires the state to contract with a manufacturer or wholesale distributor of personal protective equipment that guarantees a set amount and stocked supply of the equipment for use during a public health disaster; and provides that a declaration of a public health disaster expires after 30 days and may be renewed only by the Legislature (or the Commissioner of DSHS with the approval of a legislative oversight board). 

HOUSE BILL 1239 prohibits state or local government from issuing an order that closes a place of worship in the state. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right, and government should not be permitted to interfere with its exercise. A proposed constitutional amendment under Senate Joint Resolution 27 (Hancock | SP: Leach, et al.), which was passed by the state’s voters in 2021, similarly prohibit the state or any of its political subdivisions from prohibiting or limiting religious services. 

HOUSE BILL 2211 limits the ability of hospitals to deny in-person visitation to patients during times of disaster. The bill permits hospitals to take reasonable precautions, such as limiting the number of visitors to one, screening visitors for health conditions, and requiring visitors to wear protective equipment.

SENATE BILL 572 forbids health care facilities from preventing a resident of the facility from receiving in-person visits from a religious counsellor. The bill permits a facility to impose reasonable restrictions on such visitors to prevent the spread of disease.