This is what learning to live with the coronavirus looks like.
We used to speak muscularly of boxing in the virus. Or flattening it. The vaccine would be our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
“It’s time to take a different strategic approach,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said as he imposed requirements for vaccination on various businesses, workers and customers. “We tried a purely voluntary approach.”
This variant of the coronavirus is all around us and spreading. The city’s “epicenters” are no longer only low income neighborhoods or Republican ones.
Five of the top ten COVID-19 case rates in the city are now being recorded in Manhattan south of 59th Street – Gramercy Park, Murray Hill, Chelsea/Clinton, Greenwich Village/Soho, FiDi and the Lower East Side up to Union Square, according to the city Health Department, which combines zip codes to get these neighborhood-wide measures.
All five boroughs now have high transmission rates as defined by the Centers for Disease Control (even neighborhoods with the city’s lowest rates of new cases, like the Upper West Side and Washington Heights, are considered high by the CDC’s measure).
This New Normal
The sense that New York, at least, if not the world, was in the “end game” of the pandemic has been upended. Instead, government, business and each of us as individuals is struggling to define the rules of this new normal.
On Friday, United Airlines said it would require all its staff and crew to be vaccinated. But of the other major carriers flying in and out of New York, only Frontier followed. Delta Airlines (no relation to the variant) is only mandating vaccination of new employees, for example.
Moreover, none of the airlines favored a vaccine rule for their passengers. Pushing that was Bronx congressman Ritchie Torres, who wrote to the Department of Homeland Security suggesting that if blocking guns and knives from planes was vital, shouldn’t blocking the virus be, too?
This same struggle to draw the right line was visible in de Blasio’s “different strategic approach.”
Breaking with his record of being a-step-behind through the pandemic, the mayor announced that the city would require both employees and customers at indoor venues – restaurants, fitness clubs, theaters – to be vaccinated. The city will begin enforcing the mandate September 13, which is also the first day of school.
Yet the mayor did not impose the same vaccine mandate on his own employees, although court rulings and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission say employers have that authority. Instead, he told city workers they had to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, a discomfort he hopes will nudge them to be vaccinated.
The difference appears to be the unions for municipal workers, who have for the most part adopted the position that their members should get vaccinated but that their employer, The City of New York, should not make it a condition of employment.
A crack appeared Sunday in this solidarity. “As a matter of personal conscience,” said the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, “I think we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates.”
The union, which represents New York’s public school teachers, has up to now joined other municipal unions in insisting that vaccination be voluntary.
“We Need Government to Tell Us”
Strikingly, the mayor says many businesses want the government to do more or less what the unions are resisting.
“What we’ve heard from a lot of people, including in the restaurant community was: ‘we know that we need to keep everyone safe, including our employees. We need government to tell us this is the right thing to do so we have a clear standard we can point to’.”
While some businesses did welcome the mayor’s mandates, others complained or said outright they could not operate under them. The New York Auto Show, which went virtual last year, canceled its planned return “due to the growing incidences of the COVID-19 Delta variant and the increased measures announced recently by State and local officials to stop its spread.”
This made it “more difficult to create an event at the high standard that we and our clients expect,” said Mark Schienberg, president of the New York Auto Show.
The mayor has said repeatedly that the goal is to nudge as many people as possible to get vaccinated, whether by directly mandating it or by making it so attractive that visions of a great post-vaccination life overwhelm hesitancy. “Even the first dose gets you in the game,” the mayor said in explaining how his vaccine mandate for indoor venues works. There is also the offer of $100 to get jabbed.
On this front the mayor proclaimed success. The number of vaccinations has risen in recent days. One day last week 25,000 doses were administered, the highest since June. That is still far below the peak last April of 100,000 doses a day.
Absorbing the Message
Our understanding of vaccination has gone through an evolution. The experts always said the vaccines were designed to stop illness much more than transmission. We seem slowly to be absorbing that message, with the added shove provided by the far more transmissible Delta variant.
The number of hospitalized New Yorkers is rising, although so far not as quickly as the number of new cases, a signal that vaccines, as forecast, are retarding serious illness better than transmission.
Which is why Mayor de Blasio has declared vaccination “the ballgame.”
Much of the attention to vaccine resistance has focused on Red states and the city’s red neighborhoods, Like South Beach, Tottenville and Port Richmond on Staten Island, which have the highest rates of new cases in the city.
But the mayor, a proud progressive, as he likes to say, came face-to-face with resistance from the left last week.
Shortly after he announced the vaccine mandate for indoor activity, the acting Mayor of Boston, Kim Janey, who is in a fierce election fight, denounced the rules as reminiscent of slavery and crackdowns on immigrants. “There’s a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers,” she said.
De Blasio snapped back, calling her statements “absolutely inappropriate,” adding:
“This is a way to save lives. This is a way to stop the Delta variant, which is threatening the entire life of this country. The President of the United States endorsed my approach within hours. So I’m assuming the interim mayor has not heard the whole story because I can’t believe she would say it’s okay to leave so many people unvaccinated and in danger.
“We tried a purely voluntary approach for seven long months, tons of incentives, lots of tender, loving care, lots of communication, lots of respect, lots of dialogue with health care professionals. We’ve done that. It’s time for something more muscular at this point to save lives and to stop us from falling backwards. And by the way, you’re seeing the private sector embrace this all over the country. So, this is a time for people to support this kind of action and help us save lives.”
Janey, attacked by opponents in the Boston mayor’s race, later said she regretted she had used the analogy to slavery but continued to oppose mandated vaccines and “vaccine passports” as counterproductive to building trust in communities of color.
“We tried a purely voluntary approach for seven long months, tons of incentives, lots of tender, loving care, lots of communication ... It’s time for something more muscular at this point to save lives and to stop us from falling backwards.” Mayor Bill de Blasio