The nationwide fight over coronavirus vaccine mandates gained intensity this week as top Republicans and their conservative allies escalated attacks on public health strategies aimed at curbing the pandemic, drawing corporate America into the center of a burgeoning cultural and political clash.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) sought to ban covid-related mandates in the country’s second-largest state, while Republicans seized on flight disruptions at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, saying they were caused by employees protesting mandates. That assertion was disputed by company and union officials.

The anti-mandate cause is becoming increasingly central to pro-Trump Republicans, with figures such as Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis loudly promoting it, a development that complicates President Biden’s efforts to fight the pandemic.

Arguments that mask mandates violate an individual’s constitutional right to liberty might not cut it with the Supreme Court. Here's why. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

The clash over mandates is playing out far beyond Texas. On Tuesday, a federal judge said New York state, which has imposed a mandate on health-care workers, must allow religious exemptions while the mandate works its way through the courts. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an outspoken conservative, tweeted that “Ohio should ban all vaccine mandates.”

And the Brooklyn Nets basketball team told superstar guard Kyrie Irving on Tuesday that he must get vaccinated or he cannot play or practice with the team — prompting a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, lauding Irving over what he had “sacrificed.”

This growing clamor over vaccine mandates — which public health experts say are the best way to end the nearly two-year pandemic, and which have proved effective in other countries — poses a direct challenge to Biden. After initial hesitancy, he has embraced vaccine requirements as he seeks to deliver on the central promise of his presidency to take the country past covid.

“There are very few Republicans that you talk to — at any level — who are supportive of mandates,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican consultant and former campaign manager for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “So that’s the unifying feature.”

Abbott’s order shows that Texas Republicans, Steinhauser said, see an advantage in siding with the restive GOP base over their traditional allies in big business. “In Texas today, there are far more conservative rural Republicans than urban or even suburban Republicans, and they have a lot of clout,” Steinhauser said.

On Monday, Abbott issued an executive order banning any entity in his state — including private companies — from mandating coronavirus vaccines for workers or customers, expanding prior orders from his office that prohibited government entities from imposing such requirements.

Abbott’s team described the move as a way to create clarity after Biden announced recently that the U.S. Labor Department would develop a rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to get either coronavirus shots or regular tests for the disease.

“What Biden did with his bumbling announcement was to confuse businesses,” said Dave Carney, a top strategist for Abbott. “Small businesses throughout the state didn’t want to be in violation of the president’s bumbling press conference.” That prompted the Texas governor “to clarify that there are exceptions, under state law, for things like vaccinations,” Carney said.

But Democrats and public health experts say vaccines are crucial to defeating the pandemic, that mandates are necessary, and that actions like Abbott’s are reckless.

Democrat Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which includes Houston, blasted Abbott on Tuesday. “This prohibition against vaccine mandates is like as if the governor were telling me that I can’t issue an order to evacuate the coastal areas when a hurricane is barreling toward us,” Hidalgo said at a news conference.

Biden tweeted Tuesday: “There’s no better way to beat this pandemic than to get the vast majority of Americans vaccinated. It’s as simple as that.”

Abbott, a potential 2024 presidential contender, is seeking to bolster his credentials as a supporter of former president Donald Trump’s approach. In 2022, he faces a gubernatorial primary challenge from the right in former state senator Don Huffines, who recently called on Abbott to do more to challenge vaccine mandates.

Despite the rhetorical clash, it is arguably possible for companies to comply both with Abbott’s order and Biden’s, because the president’s rule allows most workers to be tested for the coronavirus if they don’t want to be vaccinated. (Biden has separately ordered more-traditional mandates that would conflict with Abbott’s directive for targeted parts of the economy, including health-care workers.)

The White House criticized Abbott’s move and said that businesses ought to follow Biden’s guidance. “We know that federal law overrides state law,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when asked about the Texas order.

But especially on the right, the dispute has become in large measure about identity and culture, not just about the policy itself.

Although Biden frequently talks about mandates, and has issued targeted vaccine requirements for groups including federal government workers, members of the military and health-care workers, his proposed rule would not force employees to choose between their job and their vaccination status.

But some companies have gone further, telling workers that they must get vaccinated to keep their jobs. That includes Southwest Airlines, which has said workers must be vaccinated by early December, unless they receive exemptions for religious or health reasons.

That became an issue when the airline in recent days canceled thousands of flights, citing bad weather and air traffic control issues. Republicans have seized on the disruptions, claiming they were caused by staff shortages prompted by principled workers refusing to get vaccinated.

“Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work!” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said via social media. “Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers. #ThanksJoe.”

“I’m asking, stop the madness before more damage is done,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a Twitter post reiterating his opposition to mandates.

Southwest’s corporate leaders, its pilots union and the Federal Aviation Administration have all forcefully pushed back on claims that flight cancellations were caused by pilots protesting the coronavirus vaccine mandate.

Gary C. Kelly, the airline’s chief executive, said in an interview with ABC News’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday that the weather and air traffic problems snowballed as planes and crews were not where they needed to be for subsequent flights. Unlike some of its competitors, Southwest operates a point-to-point system rather than a hub-and-spoke arrangement, which aviation analysts say can leave it more vulnerable to disruptions.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association circulated an analysis showing no particular uptick in pilots calling out sick, and cited evidence that pilots were continuing to come forward to pick up extra flights.

The Biden administration also pushed back on the emerging GOP narrative, with a touch of sarcasm. Pointing to comments from the union, Ben Wakana, a member of the White House’s covid-19 response team, said in a tweet Monday afternoon, “The cancellations also happened after Sox beat the Yankees but that had nothing to do with it either.”

The battle lines are likely to sharpen in coming weeks, as the expanded regulatory approval of coronavirus vaccines could pave the way for potential for vaccine mandates for schoolchildren.

California was the first state to announce that vaccinations would be mandatory for students once they receive full regulatory approval, which may not come until next year.

Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said other states are not rushing to follow California’s lead and are taking their time with a potentially explosive issue.

“Even some of your more progressive states are going to be pretty cautious about opening that up and mandating the vaccine for kids,” Plescia said. “There’s been an increasing amount of controversy on child vaccines in general.”

Still, the United States has seen a cascade of vaccine mandates at all levels — from the federal workforce to major technology companies to tiny police departments — following the summer coronavirus surge that battered southeast states and sent infections and hospitalizations soaring to record heights in hot spots across the country.

The ongoing toll of the pandemic, even when vaccines are widely available — including 100,000 new fatalities since the Fourth of July — has increased pressure in some corners to take aggressive measures to prevent additional spikes, especially while children remain unvaccinated.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released in early September found a slight majority of Americans (52 percent) support businesses requiring employees who come into work to be vaccinated. The poll found a sharp partisan divide: 8 in 10 Democrats favored the mandates, while more than 6 in 10 Republicans opposed them.

About 20 states have a vaccine or regular testing mandate for some or all state employees, according to tracking by the National Academy for State Health Policy.

Since vaccines have become widely available, a wave of Republican governors and state lawmakers have gone after vaccine requirements for businesses and major events, and some are even re-examining long-standing vaccine requirements for other infectious diseases beyond covid.

At least seven states have some sort of prohibition on state or local agencies mandating coronavirus vaccines: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Utah, Tennessee, Michigan and Montana. In Florida, DeSantis has threatened to fine localities that mandate vaccines for government workers, a fight that is expected to be resolved in court.

On Tuesday, DeSantis announced the state would levy a $3.5 million fine on Leon County, which includes Tallahassee. The county, he said, violated Florida’s ban on vaccine passports by requiring employees to provide proof of vaccination and firing 14 who did not comply.

Leon County Administrator Vince Long told the Tallahassee Democrat that officials stood by the mandate and would fight the fine.

Besides Texas, only Montana has extended the ban on vaccine mandates to private employers, a policy that is expected to come under new scrutiny as the Biden administration moves forward on its worker mandate. The moves, Democrats argue, conflict with a long-held conservative principle of avoiding restrictions on businesses.

In August, Abbott issued a less stringent executive order that barred government agencies from mandating vaccines, but allowed businesses a free hand. A spokeswoman said at the time, “Private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

On Tuesday, Abbott’s order immediately affected politics across the country, with candidates in top races seizing on it for their own advantage. In the closely watched gubernatorial race in Virginia, former governor Terry McAuliffe, a pro-mandate Democrat, tried to tie the Texas policy to his opponent, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin.

“Glenn Youngkin’s endorser Greg Abbott is now banning ALL vaccine requirements,” McAuliffe posted on Twitter. “We can’t risk this kind of dangerous leadership in VA.”

Some business leaders in Texas, however, shrugged off the governor’s order, considering it unlikely to survive a court challenge and believing it is trumped by the Biden administration’s forthcoming mandate.

Businesses and other groups are waiting for the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, to announce the rules governing the federal mandate and its implementation. The Biden administration said late Tuesday that draft text of the rule has been submitted to the Office of Management and Budget, a preliminary step before it is published.

Amber Gunst, chief executive of the Austin Technology Council, said she represents data- and research-driven businesses that want to take necessary measures to quell a pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 Americans. She previously praised the Biden administration’s employer vaccine mandate for shifting the decision away from individual businesses.

“The governor’s mandate yesterday simply is a nuisance for businesses to have to deal with at this point,” Gunst said in an interview. “Companies are not going to put themselves at risk of being in violation of OSHA standards.”