Updated after quote from State Sen. Kolkhorst’s office.

Despite state law and an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott, more Texas businesses are requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. While there are questions about the strength of a recently passed state law prohibiting such practices, citizens are being urged to ask the appropriate state officials to enforce it.

On Monday, local media reported Austin restaurants Fresa’s Chicken Al Carbon and Launderette are requiring customers to provide proof of vaccination (“at least one shot”) to dine indoors. Billy Bob’s Texas, a honky-tonk in Fort Worth, is checking for vaccinations for a show this Friday only at the request of the artist performing that day (Jason Isbell). “The next night, we have Casey Donahew. We’ll be back to our normal Billy Bob’s protocols that night,” Marty of Billy Bob’s told Texas Scorecard.

“It’s happening all across Texas,” said Jackie Schlegel, executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice. Schlegel said the reports coming in on Tuesday “have been nonstop.”

“Unfortunately, it seems like many of these mandates, and these attempts to circumvent the law, are coming through deep blue areas,” she continued.

On June 7, Gov. Abbott stated, “No business or government entity can require a person to provide a vaccine passport or any other vaccine information as a condition of receiving any service or entering any place.”

He was referring to State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst’s (R–Brenham) Senate Bill 968, which states businesses will be denied state taxpayer funds if they require customers to show proof of vaccination. Abbott signed SB 968 into law on June 16 and issued an executive order on July 29 that had similar language.

SB 968 also says state agencies “shall ensure” businesses obey and “may” require obedience as a condition for their license or permit.

Abbott office didn’t respond to a media inquiry about the situation before publication time, nor did Fresa’s or Launderette.

“Texans should have the freedom to move about freely in their state, without fear of discrimination based upon their vaccination status,” State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) told Texas Scorecard. “Any business which requires proof of vaccination to provide a service is breaking the law and must be held accountable.”

In a statement, Chris Steinbach, chief of staff for State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R–Brenham), wrote “Senator Kolkhorst’s office has been made aware of several businesses ignoring this new law and she has notified Governor Abbott’s office. She has also reached out directly to state agencies to educate them of their duty to ensure all state license and permit holders are complying with the ban on vaccine passports in the State of Texas.” He adds compliance with the law is required in Section 161.0085(d) of the state Health and Safety Code, and formal complaints against such businesses may be filed with state agencies that license them, like the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Austin resident Adam Cahn, however, believes the fault lies in the law itself.

“Like it or not, those businesses are within the bounds of SB 968,” he said. “Unless the business in question receives state funding, SB 968 is completely toothless. This is a completely predictable consequence of the Texas Legislature passing watered-down bills while Greg Abbott ‘governs’ by executive order.”

Cahn also believes this language from Section 14 of the law protects businesses with vaccine requirements: “This section may not be construed to: (1) restrict a business from implementing COVID-19 screening and infection control protocols in accordance with state and federal law to protect public health.”

SB 968 differs from Florida’s Senate Bill 2006, the state’s ban on requiring customers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. The penalty for violators is a fine no higher than $5,000 per incident. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed it into law earlier this year.

This is not the first challenge posed to SB 968 in Texas. In mid-July, cruise lines Carnival and Royal Caribbean International required proof of vaccination for those boarding from Galveston. Currently, Carnival and RCI require unvaccinated guests get an exemption. In addition, Carnival requires unvaccinated customers to undergo testing and purchase travel insurance.

“It’s an incredibly slippery slope when we allow political agendas to replace anti-discriminatory policies when history shows a long, hard battle for equal treatment under the law,” Schlegel said. “Texans for Vaccine Choice stands with all individuals in their right to medical privacy and encourages all violations to be reported immediately.” She says citizens may file formal complaints of violations of SB 968, Section 14, with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Hall called on TABC to enforce the law.

“I join Senate Health & Human Services Committee Chairwoman Kolkhorst, the author of SB 968, in urging the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to enforce the COVID-19 passport prohibition in the bill by ensuring that restaurants who have begun requiring proof of vaccination are made to comply with the law,” he stated. “I also encourage any Texas customer who is told to disclose his or her vaccination status to make a complaint to a state agency which regulates the business.”

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.