In the final five days of Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty, New York City conducted its first and only checks for compliance with one of the nation's strictest COVID-19 mandates — that all private employers require each employee to be vaccinated against coronavirus or be barred from showing up to work.
The inspection results were not promising.
Of 3,025 businesses inspected from Dec. 27 to Dec. 31, just 31% were found to be following the order, Fabien Levy, a spokesman for de Blasio’s successor, Eric Adams, said Tuesday.
On Jan. 1, when Adams took over, the city kept the mandate, but, Levy said, stopped the inspections altogether.
And despite de Blasio’s threats that defiant businesses would face fines starting at $1,000 and escalating penalties thereafter, no one has ever been fined, by either mayor, Levy said; the Adams administration has no plans to start doing so.
The disclosure that New York City is neither inspecting nor fining any employer is the first official confirmation of what leaders of business groups big and small told Newsday months ago: The city isn’t enforcing a health order — which was announced Dec. 6 and took effect Dec. 27 — meant to jolt vaccination rates and protect workers from infecting one another.
“I would say, yes, absolutely, one of the things we envisioned was that — and this is true for any regulation — that the only way you could hold people accountable for it is to have a penalty,” said Dr. Jay Varma, de Blasio’s former top pandemic adviser, who has been critical of the Adams administration for rolling back certain pandemic measures.
Under the order, employers must seek each worker's proof of vaccination, keep a log of who is and isn’t vaccinated, and “must exclude from the workplace any worker” who's unvaccinated, according to the order, which applies even to those who live outside the five boroughs.
The city is the only U.S. jurisdiction with such a vaccination requirement for the private sector, and is estimated to apply to roughly 184,000 businesses with operations in the city.
As of May 2022, there were 3,924,100 private sector employees in the city, according to state labor department statistics.
In March, the business groups told Newsday that the city isn't checking to make sure employers are keeping the required roster, and that instead the city is relying on the honor system. The head of an organization representing the city's biggest businesses said the mandate has given her members cover to do what they would have done anyway: require employee vaccination. But the head of a citywide association of bodegas, restaurants and barber shops said that “most” of his members aren’t checking for vaccine proof.
The city's honor system approach is a contrast with how Adams — keeping another mandate put in place by de Blasio — has handled vaccination in the city's own municipal workforce: requiring that those workers be vaccinated or be fired. Indeed, the city has terminated hundreds of workers and has investigated NYPD cops, sanitation workers and teachers who were caught allegedly faking vaccine cards.
Adams was asked in April about the private sector mandate, and he said, "We're not trying to be heavy handed and just go in and be harmful to businesses and to residents … It was never about giving fines to people. It was motivating good behavior, and we are doing our spot-inspection checks if we receive complaints, we're following up on that.”
Asked Tuesday about spot inspections, Levy, Adams' spokesman, said there haven’t been any — because the city has gotten zero complaints.
The approach to elicit compliance is now educational, not punitive, Levy said.
“We have been focused on prioritizing education instead of enforcement when it comes to the private sector mandate, which is how we’ve been able to get more than 87 percent of all New Yorkers with their first dose to date,” Levy said in an email.
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown Law professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law, who strongly supports vaccine mandates, said, “if you’re not gonna enforce a rule, then you shouldn’t have the rule.”
But, he said, he now supports Adams’ approach on the private sector mandate, lamenting: “Vaccines mandates have not worked, and it’s time to shift on to a more educational approach."
He added of the mandates: “They’re good for businesses. They’re good for the city, and they’re good for the country. But the public and the political establishment in America — and even the courts — have just not been on board. And so I think it is time for a new strategy, at this stage in the pandemic.”