Mayor Muriel Bowser. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

The City (Sorta) Issues a Mandate

Flanked by administration heads and other labor specialists, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced yesterday she’s implementing a vaccine mandate for D.C. government workers.

Well… not a FULL mandate… all employees, contractors, interns, and city grant recipients can opt out of taking the vaccine but will face weekly COVID-19 testing. Those who opt out, including those with religious or medical reasons, will use weekly self-testing kits. The mayor says workers must get fully vaccinated by Sept. 19 and new hires after Aug. 14 will require full vaccination (except for those with medical and religious exemptions).

The Bowser administration said last week it was working with city leaders on how to best implement the mandate. It opted for vaccination or weekly testing as a compromise for those who have hesitancy toward vaccination. Bowser says only 54 percent of the government’s roughly 36,700 employees have reported being vaccinated. The city says it got that number from an internal survey 59 percent of its workers have so far taken.  While the city didn’t issue a blanket vaccine mandate for its workers, City Administrator Kevin Donahue says they’ll re-evaluate if vaccination rates don’t increase.

“The goal is to get everyone vaccinated,” Donahue says during the press conference, “There is an opportunity working with our employees and their unions to be able to boost our vaccine numbers much higher than they are now, I believe without getting to the point where we have to impose a mandate as a condition of employment.” 

City officials stressed that vaccines are still working, with Bowser saying: “We know that we have been very steadfast and successful in crushing the virus in the District, and now we are going to do that with the delta variant … The way to do that, however, is to get everyone vaccinated.”

But when asked why she isn’t implementing a policy akin to New York City’s vaccine passport to help slow the spread outside of D.C.’s employees, she said she wasn’t sure it would work.

“I’m not sure how effective that will be on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis. We don’t live in a bubble,” she said, but added that she supports businesses requiring proof of vaccination.

And oh boy have they….

Businesses Requiring Proof of Vaccination

Bowser announced a return of the mask mandate July 29, citing public data and saying she wanted to get ahead of the rising cases and “nip it in the bud.” But the public response was less than supportive. Many decried the fact that it was implemented so suddenly despite only having three deaths in the two weeks prior and the fact that “breakthrough cases,” or cards among vaccinated individuals, were such a tiny slice of the pie. Those frustrations were compounded after Bowser allegedly broke her own mandate at a D.C. wedding.

To Bowser’s credit, Johns Hopkins has reported an uptick of new cases in D.C. However, many businesses say it isn’t enough to bring back mask mandates. Businesses who managed to survive the pandemic have reportedly lost thousands of dollars due to the return of masking indoors. Officials are now saying the mandate may stay in place as late as Thanksgiving. This requirement and rise of the delta variant has led to bars, music venues, restaurants and countless other businesses to create vaccine requirements themselves. One of those businesses is VIDA Fitness, which said in a letter to patrons vaccines would now be required.

“Mask mandates keep people away from these facilities. Our stance is simple…Require vaccinations. Make masks optional … It is absolutely the right decision, and it should be a citywide mandate,” says President and Founder David von Storch

VIDA and other gyms had petitioned for customers to go maskless if they required vaccines. The city said no. Von Storch says 98 percent of its patrons have reported full vaccination and argues gyms like theirs do not impact community spread.

“DC’s fitness facilities are not a source of community spread. They are where people go to stay healthy and fight off infection,” von Storch says. “The mask mandate will not reduce community spread in places like bars and restaurants where patrons remove their masks. These environments are known sources of community spread.”

Many restaurants have also implemented a vaccine mandate—including José Andrés’ local spots. He says all of his local restaurants will start requiring proof of vaccination for everyone 12 and older. 

“I’m proud that many small businesses have stepped up with smart decisions showing bigger guns the way,” Andrés tells City Paper. “Businesses shouldn’t be ‘creating’ health guidelines, but the early lack of leadership on the pandemic created many problems.”

Many bars have also implemented a vaccine mandate, including Ivy and Coney. City Paper’s Laura Hayes shadowed the staff and saw the mandate was followed with barely any drama

This trend is growing nationwide as many cities, companies, and the federal government are toying with the idea of requiring vaccinations. Former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security Juilette Kayyem told PBS NewsHour a growing resentment against the unvaccinated is happening across the country as cases begin to rise and mandates return.

“I think what you’ve seen in the last two weeks in the United States is done waiting, and that we have to move from the carrots of luring people,” she said, referencing vaccination incentives programs. “I think the vaccinated, who are the majority in this country, are saying: ‘You can choose to be unvaccinated, but I’m done carrying the universal burden.’”

If you need to schedule your vaccine, check out coronavirus.dc.gov to get your shot

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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