Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday that New York City has made an exception to the city's private-sector COVID-19 vaccination mandate for hometown unvaccinated performers and athletes. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp, Reece Williams

Sports stars like the Nets’ Kyrie Irving, who defied New York City’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, now get to work in the Big Apple and avoid the shots — a policy reversal that spares a few from the fate of average workers who refused to roll up their sleeves.

Mayor Eric Adams announced on Thursday that only professional athletes and performers qualify under a new exception to the months-old, citywide mandate requiring nearly every other worker to show proof of full vaccination. Critics, including labor unions, say the exception is unfair to those who lost their jobs over their vaccination status. 

Speaking at Citi Field in Queens, Adams said the exception would help the city’s economy, which has struggled to recover from the pandemic. He said the exception is also a matter of fairness, since the old rule made an exception for unvaccinated performers and athletes from out of town, but not for local performers and athletes.

“This is about putting New York City-based performers on a level playing field. Day One when I was mayor I looked at the rule that stated hometown players had an unfair disadvantage,” Adams said, adding: “Unimaginable. We were treating our performers differently because they lived and played for home teams. It's not acceptable.”

        WHAT TO KNOW

  • An exception was made starting Thursday for performers and professional athletes, who no longer need to show proof of vaccination, unlike nearly every other worker in New York City who must be jabbed or risk being fired.
  • Unions criticized the exception, saying it’s unfair and provides ammunition for legal challenges.
  • It’s Mayor Adams’ latest suspension of rules imposed over the past two years during the pandemic, including requiring vaccine proof to enter venues and masks for schoolchildren.

Dr. Mitch Katz, head of the city's public health care system, said he backs the new policy, saying of the old one: “I don't think it makes any sense or follows any particular science.”

Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer said the new policy would apply not just to big stars, but also, say, to a jazz musician at a club in Flatbush or a stand-up comic at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

In February, nearly 1,500 municipal workers were fired for refusing to show vaccine proof pursuant to a related mandate covering public-sector workers; there are still more yet who could be fired whose appeals are pending.

Adams, who had publicly mused for more than a month about changing the rules, said Thursday that fired municipal workers would not be rehired.

Michael Kane of Wantagh taught in the city public school system until October, when the mandate, imposed under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio went into effect. Kane, 43, has refused to get vaccinated and was officially fired in February. He’s had to tap savings.

"Performers, athletes — mostly rich people — don’t have to show proof of vaccination to do their jobs in New York City, and I’m pressing back on that: how come not for the little guy? How come not for teachers, firefighters, police officers, so many of us that are on unpaid leave or lost our jobs,” Kane said.

In statements, labor unions of municipal workers said the exception provides ammunition for pending litigation challenging the mandate.

“If the mandate isn’t necessary for famous people, then it’s not necessary for the cops who are protecting our city,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the union representing the rank-and-file.

Alison Gendar, a spokeswoman for the United Federation of Teachers, said in an email: “If the rules are going to be suspended, particularly for people with influence, then the UFT and other city unions are ready to discuss how exceptions could be applied to city workers.”

And Benny Boscio, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, the city’s biggest union for correction officers, said: “Terminating our members based on a policy that no longer exists for most New Yorkers is both disparate treatment and counterproductive.”

Correction officers have had among the municipal workforce's lowest vaccination rates.

For months, the mandate — which went into effect Dec. 27 for private-sector workers and months earlier for the municipal workforce — meant that unvaccinated hometown players like Irving were banned from playing in games in New York City.
Irving has refused to be vaccinated, explaining in October on Instagram: “It’s not about being anti-vax … It's just really about being true to what feels good for me.”

Irving, the team’s star point guard, had also been restricted from attending home games at Barclays Center because of an earlier mandate, instituted in August and since rescinded by Adams, that limited attendance at venues such as arenas, restaurants, bars and gyms, to those with proof of vaccination. That requirement was dropped earlier this month — and Irving attended games at Barclays this month but just as a spectator.

On Thursday at Citi Field, Adams made the announcement flanked by executives from the Yankees, as well as the Mets. That team, at least as of last season, was among Major League Baseball's least vaccinated.

The applause had ended, and Sandy Alderson, the Mets president, and Randy Levine, his Yankees counterpart, were asked by a reporter about whether their non-player employees were fired for failure to get vaccinated.

Levine didn’t answer, but Alderson said that 99.5% of Mets employees complied with the mandate. “There were one or two cases that came up that people were not prepared to be vaccinated, and their situations, they were terminated.”

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