With less than a month left before he exits Gracie Mansion and returns to being a private citizen, Mayor Bill de Blasio this week ordered every private business in New York to require vaccination of all on-site employees. This mandate, which covers some 184,000 enterprises and millions of workers, will be the most expansive such requirement in the United States, assuming it survives inevitable challenges in the courts, not to mention substantial pushback from business groups and civil libertarians.
De Blasio’s diktat, dropped in the middle of the holiday season, will take effect December 27th, offering businesses extraordinarily little time to prepare themselves or their workers for its implementation. The bare-boned order was delivered with a minimum of detail, raising more questions than answers. Would employees who refused vaccination be placed on leave without pay, as is the case with municipal workers, or fired outright? What penalties will businesses face if they allow unvaccinated employees to keep working? Does every employee fall under the mandate, or just the ones who are in the office full-time?
The mayor’s response to the concerns of the private sector was characteristically blithe. “Our Department of Health is going to work with the business sector and come out with specific protocols by December 15th,” the mayor explained, “so people have time.”
It should be noted that the Biden Administration announced its nationwide workplace vaccination mandate — which would apply to businesses with more than 100 employees — 60 days before its effective date of January 4, 2022. The mayor’s compressed itinerary, offering only a few days before Christmas for review and comprehension of a complex, controversial policy with potentially limitless negative ramifications, reads as reckless, unserious, and an act of grandstanding by a lame-duck politician for whom empty spectacle is a kind of love language.
Indeed, de Blasio’s ukase seems cynical even by his own low bar for respectable governance. The emergent reason for its promulgation is the Omicron variant, though even Anthony Fauci — our soi-disant embodiment of Science — has indicated that the new mutation appears to be mild and not a cause for panic. There’s no particular indication that New York City is facing a devastating crush of infection. Cases are up, but the ‘percent positive’ number is well below the 5% threshold that the World Health Organisation considers too high. Covid hospitalisation and death indicators in the city are stable or declining. There have been a few Omicron cases across New York State, but there’s no evidence that they are causing grave illness.
If the experience of the federal mandate — which has met nationwide injunctions at every turn — is any model, then it is hard to imagine that New York City’s even less qualified version will be waved through the courts. Numerous attorneys have already sworn to sue the city on behalf of both business owners and their employees. De Blasio and his corporation counsel have expressed total confidence in the sturdiness of the mandate to withstand legal challenges, but de Blasio has a long history of insisting that bizarre legal manoeuvres will have no problems succeeding in court. In 2018, for instance, the city filed suit against the Big Five oil companies for having caused climate change; the case, despite de Blasio’s casual confidence, was immediately dismissed.
The mandate will also face massive resistance from the private sector, which is struggling to recover from the lockdown. New York City is still hundreds of thousands of jobs shy of its pre-Covid levels, and more than half of Manhattan’s one million office workers are working from home all week. Aside from de Blasio, who commonly denigrates Manhattan as “not the center of our universe,” everyone acknowledges that full economic recovery depends on Midtown returning to life. But it’s not clear that a vaccination mandate will encourage workers to rush back to their desks.
But the mayor has riled the business community, with which he has always had a frosty relationship. Kathryn Wylde, head of the business coalition Partnership for NYC, protested, “there’s no forewarning, no discussion, no idea about whether it’s legal or who he expects to enforce it. There’s been no consultation. We were blindsided.” Small businesses, which in a tight labor market are struggling to retain employees or are already operating short-handed, are also facing anxiety if they are forced to lay off existing staff.
On the other hand, the mayor has frequently outsourced the heavy lifting of social change onto the private sector, as when he signed legislation mandating that all employers give workers five days of paid sick leave annually. As every large employer in the city already offered this benefit, the effect of the new law was simply to create a massive bookkeeping and financial burden for small businesses. No one wants sick people to have to work, but the sight of de Blasio exulting in having created a headache for a beleaguered class of petty capitalists captured the way Progressive policies are really effected in America’s deep blue cities.
The scheduled date for the mandate to go into effect is four days before Eric Adams is sworn in as the city’s new mayor. Why is Bill de Blasio throwing New York into a tizzy in his last weeks in office by imposing a highly disruptive new regulation, which he won’t even be around to manage? It smacks of something a vengeful office leaver would do to a political enemy, but de Blasio and Adams are ostensibly allies. In fact, the vaccine mandate isn’t the only major change that Bill de Blasio is trying to implement in a last-minute bid for relevancy and to cement his rather weak legacy as a Progressive stalwart.
In October, the mayor, citing concerns about racial equity, announced that he would eliminate the public schools’ “gifted and talented” programs. This announcement came after years of fighting over school screening and tests for admission and placement, which have strongly disfavoured black and Latino kids over white and Asian children. Eric Adams immediately indicated that he would not accept this change and had his own plans for fixing the schools.
Then, in late November, de Blasio suddenly announced the opening of new sites where drug addicts can ‘safely’ inject themselves under medical supervision. “Overdose prevention,” according to advocates, is a humane and scientifically-indicated way to ensure that drug users can be revived if they inject too much heroin or fentanyl. De Blasio cited the experience of Toronto and Vancouver in saving lives through these centres, though he failed to note that those cities have seen a stark rise in overdose deaths in the last year. Nor did he address neighbourhood concerns that safe injection sites will become a magnet for drug dealers, and lead to a proliferation of blight and disorder.
De Blasio is rumoured to be considering a run for governor next year and appears to be using his last months in office to position himself as a bold visionary. Certainly, he has been making the rounds of black churches every weekend to deliver what sound suspiciously like campaign speeches, though it is hard to imagine that, with at least two prominent African American candidates already running, he could plausibly win a statewide race leaning on the support of urban black voters. But after 20 years in elected office, few marketable skills, and virtually no private-sector experience, Bill de Blasio may be feeling himself a bit adrift as he contemplates life outside government. Hence, like petty dictators throughout history, he is desperately seeking relevance, even if it means causing massive inconvenience for everyone else.
His vaccination mandate, like similar measures across the world, is a way for aspiring tyrants to mask their desire for control and power in the gauze of the sanitary state apparatus. De Blasio is doubling down on the partial efforts of the Biden Administration to impose hindrances on a free people, and he will not be the last to do so. Even when Covid is gasping its last breaths, there is little question that vaccine, mask, and distance mandates will continue to govern our society, now forever in the grip of a permanent public health emergency.