A few years ago, conservatives became obsessed with the legal travails of a bakery that refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. Until its more recent eclipse by cancel culture, the anti-gay bakery was the premier symbol of conservative cultural martyrdom. And, to be sure, the case did pit two sympathetic values against each other: on the one hand, a gay couple’s right to enjoy the same ability as a straight couple to walk into a bakery and order a wedding cake, and on the other, an individual business owner’s freedom of conscience to abstain from actively endorsing ideas they disagree with.
Now we are facing a different kind of conflict between freedom of contract and the government. In this case, the conflict revolves around state requirements that businesses allow unvaccinated people as customers, even if the business operates in tight indoor quarters. Only now the Republican Party stands firmly on the side of heavy-handed state regulation.
Several Republican-run states have enacted laws forbidding private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. The reductio ad absurdum of this stance comes via Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is threatening to block a cruise line from resuming service if it requires passengers to be vaccinated. But the law DeSantis signed in Florida would impose a fine of $5,000 per person required to show proof of vaccination, and the governor says he will not back down.
Cruise ships are, of course, a well-known vector for the coronavirus. They inherently pack a lot of people into a confined space, and have terrifyingly high rates of infection. Aside from the public-health ramifications, it’s difficult to imagine cruises luring anything close to their pre-pandemic number of customers without being able to give them the assurance that their fellow passengers will be vaccinated.
The DeSantis position is that both the public interest in suppressing virus transmission, and the private interest of businesses in protecting their workforce and reassuring customers, are overridden by an even more compelling interest: safeguarding the rights of individuals who refuse to get vaccinated.
And keep in mind, nobody is even contemplating requiring anybody to take a vaccine. The question is whether you can refuse the vaccine and still walk into any room you wish, whether or not the owner of that room and the other people there want you. DeSantis believes your right to breathe infected germs on other people trumps every other right at issue.
Suppose you owned a bakery. And instead of refusing to sell a couple a cake because it’s for a gay wedding, you refuse to sell them a cake because they are potentially carrying a deadly virus into your shop that may infect or kill you, your fellow employees, or your customers. Conservatives say the state can force you to make that transaction anyway. Objecting to their homosexuality is a legitimate basis for excluding them, but objecting to their potential transmission of a deadly virus is not.
Why, it’s almost as if the right of individual conscience or freedom of contract was never the basis for the Republican position at all.