New York City’s sweeping mandate requiring nearly all private-sector businesses to ban unvaccinated employees from the workplace took effect Monday amid a spike in coronavirus infections, leaving some employers grappling with thorny personnel decisions.
Workers at roughly 184,000 businesses were required to show proof they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Monday. Businesses that do not comply could face fines starting at $1,000, but Mayor Bill de Blasio said imposing penalties will be a last resort.
The Democratic mayor said during a news conference Monday that mandates have worked to get people vaccinated.
“We have got to double down because one thing we can all agree on … COVID is bad for humans, it’s bad for our health, but it’s also bad for business. And if we want to avoid shutdowns, and I believe we must, we need more and more people vaccinated,” de Blasio said.
Christopher Taylor, the co-owner of Li-Lac Chocolates, agreed vaccinations are paramount in combatting the pandemic but said the mandate left him in a difficult situation.
“It’s a moral quandary. You have obligations to employees, and you have obligations to your customers. How do you know what’s the right answer?” Taylor said.
His company employs about 70 workers at six retail outlets and a chocolate factory in New York City. He estimated that as many as a quarter of his employees, most of them factory workers, have yet to be vaccinated.
“We’ve encouraged them, we’ve pushed them, but we don’t like to force them,” Taylor said.
“My primary obligation is to my employees,” he said. “I just think it’s immoral to fire somebody because of a personal medical choice.”
Some business owners and workers are planning a legal challenge, said Louis Gelormino, a Staten Island attorney. He said they’ll argue the city is violating the constitutional rights of business owners and workers to make a living, and that New York City has no authority to impose vaccine mandates on private-sector companies, although such requirements already exist for restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms and other indoor gathering places.
The new rules cover private places where work is performed in the presence of another worker or a member of the public. That includes not only stores, but shared workspaces and taxis, according to the requirements.
It’s not clear whether Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who takes office Jan. 1, will keep or change the mandate.
Fueled by the super-contagious omicron variant, new coronavirus cases in the city have rocketed from an average of about 3,400 a day in the week that ended Dec. 12 to 22,000 in the week that ended Sunday. Hospitalizations also have risen, but not as sharply.
Under the city’s new rules, many more private employers will have to verify and keep a record of each worker’s proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Workers who have received only one shot must get a second within 45 days. Companies must display a sign affirming they’re complying with the rule “in a conspicuous location,” under the city’s mandate.
Businesses aren’t required to discipline or fire non-compliant workers, but they must keep them out of the workplace. Workers seeking an accommodation on religious grounds can come to work while their request is pending.
“My hope is that the city goes light on the enforcement of this because it’s a new mandate — it certainly is going to require some transition — and employers are dealing with a myriad of other challenges right now,” said Randy Peers, the president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group representing some of the city’s larger employers, said city inspectors might be hard pressed to enforce the edict. She said she hopes the Adams administration will show flexibility on enforcement.
“Larger employers I have heard from — literally dozens and dozens of other major employers – have been concerned about meeting the mandate. The timing was very short,” Wylde said.
Vaccinations are already required in the city for hospital and nursing home workers and for city employees, including teachers, police officers and firefighters.
Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that people who test positive should isolate themselves for five days, rather than 10, provided their symptoms are gone and they continue wearing a mask for another five days.
The CDC says evidence is growing that people are most infectious in the two days before and three days after COVID-19 symptoms develop. The agency trimmed its isolation guidance for health care workers from 10 to seven days last week.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, applauded the CDC’s move. On Friday, she had set a five-day isolation period for health care and other essential workers who are fully vaccinated, don’t have symptoms and wear masks at work.
State officials said they were trying to avoid staff shortages in critical jobs while also trying to halt the virus’ spread.
“This is not about sending people back to work who are sick,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said at a news briefing Monday. “People who are sick, at all times, should not be at work, and in these times in particular.”