The Front Royal Town Council shot down a proposed ordinance on Monday aimed at protecting unvaccinated workers.

Council members voted 3-2 against a motion to adopt an emergency ordinance enacting a new town code chapter that prohibited employers in the Front Royal corporate limits from firing employees who do not receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Councilman E. Scott Lloyd, who pushed the measure, made the motion to adopt the ordinance. Councilman Joseph E. McFadden, participating in the meeting remotely, seconded the motion. Mayor Lori A. Cockrell and council members Gary L. Gillispie and Letasha T. Thompson voted against the motion. Lloyd and McFadden voted in favor of the motion.

A few people in the audience booed after the vote. One man shouted “evil triumphs.” Thompson replied: “Watch your mouth. You’re not going to disrespect me from your seats,” and the two proceeded to shout at each other. Thompson then shouted for a police officer in the room to “take his ass out.” The audience quieted down and one woman could be heard saying “we will remember this.”

Council members voted on the matter at the end of a nearly 4-hour meeting. Earlier in the meeting, during the public comment period, more than 50 people spoke about the proposed ordinance, mostly in favor. Some of the speakers expressed concerns about potential dangerous side effects with an emphasis on the rare occasion it can cause death. Others questioned the public data including the number of deaths from the coronavirus.

Valley Health, which operates Warren Memorial Hospital in town, recently announced it would require that employees be vaccinated or face termination. Some of the speakers who also work for Valley Health spoke in support of the ordinance. Some speakers claimed the mandate violated their rights while others equated the policy to “coercion.”

Toward the end of the meeting and before the vote, Town Attorney Douglas Napier told council members that “there is no mechanism, legally, for the enforcement of this ordinance if it did pass,” given Virginia’s status as a Dillon Rule state. Local governments have only the powers granted to them by the state.

Lloyd asked that members consider and approve the emergency ordinance that would add the code chapter. Lloyd has said in previous work sessions on the subject that some employers should not be allowed to fire or threaten to terminate an employee for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Thompson referenced the science fiction novel movie Hunger Games when she commented on the motion.

“I will volunteer as tribute,” Thompson said. “You can call me Katniss tonight.”

Thompson went on to call the doctors and nurses in the audience “heroes” before, during the COVID-19 pandemic and now.

“You are even a hero if you get fired by Valley Health,” Thompson said. “I do want to thank everybody for coming out because I think it’s important and I’m hoping that Valley Health and administration and other employers are looking at this and paying attention, saying this is what our employers want, this is what, you know, they’re requiring from us, and I hope that they take it into consideration as other companies might want to jump in on this vaccination policy situation.”

But, as Thompson said at nearly a half-dozen times, the town cannot prevent employers from firing employees who do not receive a vaccine if required.

“We have no authority and we can’t prevent you from being fired, so I have to say that because I feel that I would be doing a disservice if I give a false hope that we can protect you and you can take this ordinance to your employer and be, like, ‘damn, I’m not doing it’ and you still suffer a consequence.

“The one thing that has come from this, being forced onto our agenda ... which is fine because it did get a conversation started,” Thompson said, noting that people can contact their legislators who have more authority with their concerns. “I will take the boos for this and that is fine but this has been political theater because we can’t do anything so we came up here and essentially to appease Scott (Lloyd), which is fine because, like I said, we got a conversation going -

A man in the audience interrupted Thompson by booing her and she responded by saying people can boo or hiss because “it’s a free country,” at which point a woman started to shout “it’s not a free country.” Mayor Christopher W. Holloway then started to tell the woman not to shout.

“I personally feel that everyone should have a choice to do what’s best for them and their family,” Thompson said. “I am sure my counterparts feel the same way. I don’t think any of us believe that Valley Health or anyone else should essentially force you, right, because they’re kind of saying ‘do this or be fired.’

“I also believe that businesses have a right to what they feel is best for their business,” Thompson said. “Freedom has always gone in both directions.”

Virginia is a right-to-work state so employees “can be fired for practically anything,” Thompson added.

Gillispie told the audience he takes insulin injections regularly to treat his Type I diabetes. Referring statements made by a speaker, Gillispie said he did not know fetuses or fetal tissue was being used in vaccines. A Reuters article published Feb. 26 states that the vaccines do not contain the cells of aborted fetuses.

“There’s nobody in this world that’s even more pro-life than me, I’m tellin’ you,” Gillispie said. “I was heartbroken to hear that and if I would’ve known that, I would’ve definitely not gotten (the vaccine) even over my health concerns.”

Gillispie then read from a written statement in which he says he appreciates Lloyd’s intentions. Gillispie echoed Thompson’s remarks about the town’s lack of authority over private business policies.

Lloyd said that council members were defaulting to positions taken six weeks ago and reading statements written before the Monday meeting. Lloyd then cited his experience as an attorney licensed to practice law in Virginia.

“I would not propose something that gives people false hope and has no hope of there being any legal argument to make in court,” Lloyd said.

The Town Charter grants Front Royal powers such as policing and the ability to create its own hospital and a regulatory health board, among others, Lloyd said. He went on to cite a civil case from the early 1900s in which the court ruled that a local government could require that people receive a vaccine or face paying a fine. But Lloyd argued that, in the current case, people face losing their livelihoods if fired for not getting vaccinated.

“But the dramatic irony here is that (the court decision) was rooted in the police power so what we’re hearing from several of our fellow councilmen and from the town attorney is that the police power would give us the right, if we wanted to have a mandatory vaccine regime in this town, we would have the right to do that,” Lloyd said. “But at the same time, they’re also telling us that we cannot find anywhere in the police power the right to say to an employer ‘no, you cannot have (a) compulsory or coerced vaccine regime.”

Lloyd admitted that enacting the ordinance could expose Front Royal to a legal challenge, which he said the town would fight.

“So all I’m saying is that ... the arguments that can be made before a reasonable judge might have a chance in court and I think ... it’s worth taking that chance,” Lloyd said. “But sitting in front of a room full of people when the epidemic or pandemic or whatever you want to call it was young walked into rooms with people who were infected and faced the unknown.”

Employees showed up for work in spite of not knowing the facts about the virus, Lloyd said.

“And we’re going to turn and say ‘we’re not going to risk a lawsuit in order to defend these people,” Lloyd said.

McFadden said he received an experimental vaccine for anthrax while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps so he can understand some people’s fear of taking one for COVID-19, especially if mandated. McFadden said that a source told him that Valley Health will no longer use the word “mandate” and, instead, prohibit employees from working around patients unless vaccinated. McFadden said he would support the ordinance but admitted he didn’t know how much good it would do. McFadden said the action could set a precedent and a message.

A resolution attached to the proposed ordinance states that “the entity that operates the only hospital and the majority of health facilities in town, and is one of the largest employers in the Town, has retroactively stated that all employees must receive one of the available COVID-19 vaccines or be “subject to suspension or termination.” The resolution does not identify the entity by name but Valley Health operates Warren Memorial Hospital and other medical facilities in Front Royal.

The resolution states that “although exemptions are available, management of this entity has stated that these exemptions will be ‘carefully…evaluated.’ Several employees have stated to Town Council that they read this to mean that the entity will deny many requests for exemptions that they believe to be valid;

“(N)umerous employees at the same employer have contacted Town Council members to describe a campaign of what they have described as ‘harassment,’ ‘coercion,’ and ‘undue influence,’ including the public sharing of vaccination status among fellow employees, personnel walking through the halls of a facility calling out the names of those who have not received the vaccination, and other egregious acts,” the resolution states.

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