We paid a visit to the front line of the city’s new war on the coronavirus. What we found was worrisome.
A fellow with a mask slipping below his nose was on duty at the frontline checkpoint, which is up the escalators at the AMC Lincoln Square theaters on 68th St. and Broadway.
We were there to see “Free Guy,” a delightful sci-fi/rom-com in which a computer-generated character played by Ryan Reynolds breaks out of his dispiriting loop, a consummation we all are devoutly wishing for these days.
In fact, the ticket-taker, with his blue uniform shirt and name tag (Michael) bore an unsettling resemblance to the “Free Guy” movie character with his blue shirt and name tag (yes, his name is Guy).
Did you want our vaccine card or movie ticket first, I asked Michael, primed for this sequencing by our experience of vaccine enforcement the night before entering the August Wilson Theatre, where “Pass Over” is the first Broadway play to open under the city’s new rule requiring all staff and customers at most indoor venues to be vaccinated.
“Just the tickets,” Michael replied.
He said he was not checking vaccine status. When would the movie theater start doing that?
“I’m not too sure,” he shrugged.
“Make Sure People Do It”
In truth, the requirement had begun with much fanfare the day before, although Mayor Bill de Blasio said fines for failure to comply won’t be imposed until September 13. “Our goal is not to penalize restaurants and indoor entertainment and fitness businesses,” the mayor explained. “We want to get everyone clear about what they need to do and just make sure people do it.”
But Michael’s indifference, or perhaps more precisely AMC’s failure to train him, captures the daunting challenge the city faces as it attempts to use private businesses to push New Yorkers to do something for public health purposes that the city is not directly ordering: get vaccinated.
The conversation around vaccination has become quite complicated. Is protection waning among those who were vaccinated months ago? Is the Delta variant breaking through immunity more effectively than previous versions of the Sars-CoV 2 virus? The answer to both, based on data from Israel, United Kingdom and New York State, is most likely some modified version of yes.
Yet for all that, one number is far more significant than the entire discussion about boosters and waning efficacy: Three million. That is the number of New Yorkers the city estimates are still not vaccinated at all. Not even one dose.
Now, it is true that a little over one million of these unvaccinated New Yorkers are kids, who are not yet cleared for the vaccines.
But that still leaves close to two million unvaccinated teenagers and adults.
They are the feeding ground of the Delta variant, the fundamental vulnerability that has transmuted our summer of 2021 from celebrating comeback to cowering from an unseen killer stalking us the way the Son of Sam did in the summer of 1977.
The mayor issued an executive order on Monday, August 16, designed to block the virus by driving up vaccination rates among these teenagers and adults by isolating them from day-to-day fun city. Like going to the movies or out to eat.
“Mandating vaccinations at the types of establishments that residents frequent will incentivize vaccinations, increasing the City’s vaccination rates and saving lives,” the mayor wrote in his executive order.
Many employers and businesses quickly embraced the Mayor’s order, or, like the Broadway theaters, had moved ahead of the city to require vaccination for staff and patrons.
But others were slow to engage or are resisting outright.
The Hollywood Reporter, which covers the movie business, noted that “Individual cinema owners in New York City remained largely silent on the city’s introduction of a vaccine pass from Aug. 16 in the face of an alarming surge in COVID infection cases that could threaten the summer’s box office recovery as major chains and indie cinema houses continue to reopen.”
But the National Association of Theatre Owners told the Hollywood Reporter that the industry group had decided not to object to the Mayor’s executive order.
“Working through how we implement it and how we deal with the economics are challenges, but we’re not going to oppose it, because people need to get vaccinated,” John Fithian, president of the association, was quoted as saying.
AMC, which runs 13 locations in New York City, told Straus News on Friday that it was “taking appropriate steps to ensure full compliance at all our New York City locations ahead of the city’s enforcement date of September 13.” A spokesman, Ryan Noonan, noted that “AMC received specifics about the city’s mandate on the afternoon of Monday, August 16,” when the mayor issued his executive order.
“AMC Theaters fully complies with all state and local mandates and will continue to do so,” Noonan said.
But others did object. Five small businesses in Staten Island and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Republican-leaning neighborhoods where vaccine resistance has been high, asked a Staten island judge to block enforcement of the Mayor’s order.
The businesses, which include a gym, a bakery and an Italian restaurant, say the order was arbitrary and capricious. For one thing, the order did not acknowledge natural immunity from prior infection. At the same time, it said one dose of vaccine was enough to meet the requirement, even though full immunization is defined by the CDC as occurring two weeks after a second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the most widely used.
The suit criticized as patchwork what was included and excluded as an indoor public venue. The mayor, for example, exempted “pre-kindergarten through grade twelve (12) public and non-public schools and programs, child care programs, senior centers, community centers.” Also exempted are performers and athletes visiting from out of town to appear or compete indoors.
The small businesses asked in their lawsuit what makes their particular establishments so dangerous compared to those exempted? “Nothing,” the suit argued
The Mayor’s order did not specifically answer the question of how the line was drawn, but explained that “indoor entertainment, recreation, dining and fitness settings generally involve groups of unassociated people interacting for a substantial period of time and requiring vaccination for all individuals in these areas, including workers, will protect the public health, promote public safety, and save the lives of not just those vaccinated individuals but the public at large.”
The order also noted that since the start of 2021 “over 98% of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 infection involved those who were not fully vaccinated.”
Despite the uneven rollout, the new vaccine requirements do already seem to be having an effect. The rate New Yorkers are getting vaccinated has risen, from about 17,000 a day in July to solidly over 20,000 a day the last two weeks, according to city data. A pharmacist at a CVS on Broadway reported that most of the increase was people seeking vaccination to comply with the new mandates for work or play, as distinct from those now seeking third doses.
Another impact emerged at an Equinox in Manhattan. “As we are collecting proof of vaccination we are discovering employees and members who are unvaccinated and hadn’t been wearing masks,” a supervisor reported. “That’s why you have to have the mandate. Because people aren’t honest.”