The Supreme Court's conservative majority has blocked efforts by the Biden administration to empower the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce anti-COVID measures at big businesses. Measures would have included things like mask-wearing and either vaccination or regular testing.

The decision came on Jan. 13 amidst a surge in COVID-19 omicron infections. According to OSHA, the measures that the Supreme Court blocked would have saved 6,500 lives and reduced hospitalizations by 250,000 over the course of six months. The regulations would have applied to "virtually all" businesses with at least 100 employees, covering about 84 million Americans.

"OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here," the conservative majority wrote in an unsigned opinion.

Justice Gorsuch wrote in his separate concurring opinion that the question being posed is not what needs to be done to stop the pandemic, but who has the power to bring about that change. According to Gorsuch, only Congress and the States have the power under the Constitution to enact nationwide mandates.

Meanwhile, the dissenting opinion from the minority argued that OSHA is the exact agency that should be in control of enacting new workplace safety measures. Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan argued that OSHA had "meticulously" studied and detailed the measure that should be taken to improve workplace safety during the pandemic.

"Underlying everything else in this dispute is a single, simple question: Who decides how much protection, and of what kind, American workers need from COVID-19?" asked the dissenters. "An agency with expertise in workplace health and safety, acting as Congress and the President authorized? Or a court, lacking any knowledge of how to safeguard workplaces, and insulated from responsibility for any damage it causes?"

The liberal justices wrote that the conservative majority is "acting outside of its competence and without legal basis." It's worth noting that the court has decided in favor of a nationwide vaccine mandate affecting 10.4 million healthcare workers at 76,000 facilities.

In that case, Justices John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh joined their liberal peers in support of the mandate. which includes religious exemptions. In that decision, the Justices wrote that OSHA's mandate for healthcare workers is a power "the agency has long been recognized to have."

A separate vaccine mandate case covering federal contractors has yet to be heard by the Supreme Court.

In response to the Court's rejection of OSHA's more general rules, the country's largest retail business advocacy group, the National Retail Federation, said the decision is "a significant victory for employers."

While the administration always expected push-back against the OSHA mandate, President Joe Biden has spoken out against the Court's ruling, saying he was "disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements... grounded squarely in both science and the law."