New York City mayor Bill de Blasio will end his tenure at midnight, December 31, 2021, but he seems intent on inflicting one last insult on New Yorkers before he goes. De Blasio announced a mandate for the city’s approximately 184,000 private businesses, requiring them to ensure that their employees have at least one vaccine dose by December 27. The announcement seems more like a politically motivated stunt to show that de Blasio is taking, as he described it, a “bold, first-in-the-nation” measure than a medically necessary policy.
While de Blasio claims to be taking “a preemptive strike” against a potential winter Covid-19 surge brought on by the new omicron variant, cold weather, and holiday gatherings, no evidence yet suggests that a surge is imminent. New cases are high in upstate and western New York, not in New York City. The city’s seven-day average of cases is half the statewide average and one-third the average in high Covid-19 parts of the state to the north and west of the city and the mid-Hudson region. Meantime, the city’s seven-day percentage of positive Covid tests—a measure of high transmission—has been relatively stable, at one-half the statewide figure and one-third to one-quarter the level in New York’s upstate and western regions.
No one really knows how severe a threat omicron poses. It’s unclear if omicron is more transmissible or virulent than earlier variants, or if it can evade vaccination or natural immunity. Preliminary reports from South Africa indicate an increase in omicron cases but no corresponding growth in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths. Even Anthony Fauci has said that he is encouraged that, so far, omicron does not seem to cause severe disease.
A surge is unlikely in New York City, which has higher vaccination rates than the rest of the state and the country. New York Department of Health data show that the percentage of New York City residents fully vaccinated ranges from a low of 60 percent in Brooklyn to a high of 77 percent in Manhattan, while the proportion of those receiving at least one dose ranges from 67 percent to 88 percent. On a per capita basis, New York is among the most heavily vaccinated states. South Africa, by contrast, has vaccinated only 25 percent of its citizens.
The most nonsensical aspect of de Blasio’s mandate is that it is targeted at employers and their employees. In the age groups that make up most of the workforce (18 to 25; 26 to 34; 35 to 44; 45 to 54; 55 to 64), the percentage fully vaccinated ranges from 75 to 89 percent, and 85 to 96 percent have received at least one dose. No mandate is necessary for a workforce so highly vaccinated and well protected. If de Blasio were truly concerned about the spread of Covid-19—rather than about making a political statement to advance his apparent gubernatorial aspirations—he should have made the mandate general, or at least directed it toward poorly vaccinated groups, rather than confining it to the workplace.
Unlike the federal government, state and local governments have legal authority to impose general vaccine mandates to protect public health and safety. But this authority is meant to be used only in cases of true emergencies. New York City faces no Covid-19 emergency right now or on the near horizon. De Blasio’s mandate is an unneeded, premature, and poorly conceived directive.
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