Anti-vaccine protesters flock to California Capitol
California families, doctors and schools will soon have to follow new rules restricting medical exemptions for vaccines under two new laws passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday.
Newsom approved the bills after a day of raucous protests at the Capitol, where opponents of the legislation shut down both chambers of the Legislature and blocked entrances to the building, prompting at least seven arrests.
Hundreds of protesters filled the hallways and drowned out legislative debate with their chants, but lawmakers in both chambers still passed the second of the two contested bills Monday.
The author of both bills, Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, argues they are necessary to prevent fraudulent exemptions some doctors are selling to families of children who should be vaccinated. The measures build on a 2015 law that prevents parents from skipping vaccines for their kids based solely on their personal beliefs.
“I thank the governor for standing with science, and once again making California a leader in safeguarding children and communities,” Pan said in a statement Monday evening after Newsom signed the bills. “It is my hope that parents whose vulnerable children could die from vaccine-preventable diseases will be reassured that we are protecting those communities that have been left vulnerable because a few unscrupulous doctors are undermining community immunity.”
Newsom’s signatures come after he publicly wavered about the main vaccine exemption bill, Senate Bill 276. He first voiced doubts about the bill in June, then said he would sign it after Pan agreed to amendments. Newsom reversed course again last week after lawmakers sent that bill to his desk, saying he wanted even more changes.
Lawmakers scrambled to put together a second bill, Senate Bill 714, to make the changes Newsom sought, including reducing liability for doctors and preserving some existing exemptions.
“This legislation provides new tools to better protect public health, and does so in a way that ensures parents, doctors, public health officials and school administrators all know the rules of the road moving forward,” Newsom said in a statement Monday evening.
The changes didn’t satisfy opponents, however.
Outside the governor’s office Monday morning, many held signs criticizing SB 276 and waved upside-down U.S. flags, which vaccine opponents have adopted as one of their symbols. Some protesters brought children, who played in the hall outside the governor’s office or were pushed in strollers through the building.
“Veto the bill! Amendments are worse!” protesters chanted.
Chelsea Haley, a California Highway Patrol officer, said three demonstrators were arrested around 10 a.m. for blocking lawmakers’ entrance to their parking garage.
Three more people were arrested at 11:45 a.m. because the CHP said they blocked entry to the south side of the building. An additional man was escorted out of the Senate gallery and arrested at 3:55 p.m. because he allegedly disrupted the session by shouting at lawmakers. All seven activists reportedly refused to leave when officers at the Capitol directed them to do so, the CHP said.
Heidi Munoz Gleisner, one of the group’s leaders, said two activists chained themselves to the south door. CHP confirmed Gleisner’s account.
“There was nobody screaming any profanities. There was no harm to the doors. They were not hurt in any way, shape or form,” Munoz Gleisner said. “It’s a way of making a statement because our requests are falling on deaf ears. Our legislators have absolutely failed us.”
Lawmakers in the Assembly passed the supplemental legislation SB 714 on a 43-14 vote Monday afternoon. That prompted screaming from dozens of protesters in the gallery above the Assembly floor. Unable to convince them to be quiet, lawmakers broke for recess as the gallery protesters chanted, “We will not comply!”
The protesters then shut down the state Senate, chanting and screaming in the gallery until CHP officers told them to leave or face arrest. Later that afternoon, the Senate also passed the bill over objections from several Republican senators, who argued the rushed legislation didn’t face adequate public scrutiny.
The vaccine protesters competed for attention at the Capitol with several other groups Monday, including both supporters and opponents of Assembly Bill 5, a proposed law that would expand which California workers are considered employees. Other advocates in the building rallied in support of Assembly Bill 1482 — a plan to control rental rates and prevent annual hikes from certain property owners from exceeding 5 percent plus inflation.