Washington (AFP) -
The US Supreme Court heard challenges on Friday to Covid vaccination mandates imposed by the Biden administration on millions of American workers to curb the spread of the disease.
'Why isn't this necessary to abate the grave risk,?' Justice Elena Kagan asked the lawyer representing business associations opposed to the policy.
'This is a pandemic in which nearly a million people have died,' Kagan said. 'It is by far the greatest public health danger that this country has faced in the last century.
'And this is the policy that is most geared to stopping all this.'
Scott Keller, a former Texas solicitor general representing the business associations, said the rule requiring Covid vaccinations at businesses that employ 100 people would lead many workers to quit.
'An economy-wide mandate would cause permanent worker displacement, rippling through our national economy,' Keller said.
'Part of the problems we're seeing with this rule is it's not truly intended to regulate a workplace danger,' Keller said. 'It's a danger that we all face simply as a matter of waking up in the morning.'
Justice Stephen Breyer said 'some people may quit, maybe three percent.'
'But more may quit when they discover they have to work together with unvaccinated others because that means they may get the disease,' Breyer said. 'And more will quit because they'll maybe die or maybe they'll be in the hospital.'
After months of public appeals to Americans to get their shots, President Joe Biden announced in September that he was making Covid vaccinations compulsory at companies that employ 100 workers or more.
Unvaccinated employees would have to present weekly negative tests and wear face masks at work.
Biden also said vaccinations would be required for health care workers at facilities receiving federal funding.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has given businesses until February 9 to be in compliance with the rules or face the possibility of fines.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the policies are 'critical to our nation's Covid-19 response.'
'Unvaccinated Americans continue to face a real threat of severe illness and death -? including from Omicron,' Psaki said in a statement.
- 'Irreparable harm' -
The vaccine mandates came under immediate attack from some Republican lawmakers and business owners as an infringement on individual rights and an abuse of government power.
A flurry of lawsuits ensued, and the conservative-majority Supreme Court is holding a special hearing to decide whether the mandates can be implemented while the legal challenges continue.
A decision is expected within a few weeks.
Businesses with 100 employees or more represent about two-thirds of the private sector workforce in the United States, or some 80 million people.
The health care worker mandate would apply to roughly 10 million people.
The group of 26 business associations opposed to the mandates said they will 'inflict irreparable harm upon hundreds of thousands of businesses.'
Companies will be forced to pass the costs of testing on to consumers, resulting in 'yet higher prices at a time of record inflation,' they argued.
Republican-ruled states led by Missouri said forcing health care workers to be vaccinated 'threatens to create a crisis in health care facilities in rural America.'
'The mandate would force millions of workers to choose between losing their jobs or complying with an unlawful federal mandate,' they argued.
Several large US corporations, including meat giant Tyson Foods and United Airlines, imposed vaccination mandates in September without suffering major disruptions.
The Supreme Court has six conservative justices and three liberal justices, and all of them have been vaccinated and received booster shots, according to the court.
The nation's highest court has previously upheld vaccination mandates imposed on college students and health care workers by local authorities.
But the court has curtailed federal actions linked to the pandemic, notably by throwing out a moratorium prohibiting evictions.
If the court blocks the vaccination mandates, it would be a major blow to Biden, who has made bringing the pandemic under control one of his priorities but is battling a surge in cases from the Omicron variant.
Vaccination has become a politically polarizing issue in the United States, where 62 percent of the population are vaccinated.
There have been more than 58 million cases of coronavirus in the United States and more than 830,000 deaths.