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Then Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks with Dr. Eugene Heslin, 1st deputy commissioner of the New York State Department regarding state efforts to provide mass COVID-19 vaccinations administered by the NYS Dept of Health in at the Javits Center in Manhattan, February 10, 2021.
Then-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul tours the vaccination site at the Jacob K Javits Convention Center, Feb. 10, 2021.
Courtesy of the Office of Lt Governor Kathy Hochul

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Vaccination Mandate Battle Awaits Kathy Hochul as She Ascends to Governor

Cuomo calls on his successor to do what he didn’t: make all employers require shots for workers. Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio announced a vaccine mandate for school employees. Now the pressure’s on Hochul, from Day One.

Kathy Hochul, who is set to become governor Tuesday, will arrive just as the debate over vaccination mandates for schools and more reaches a fever pitch.

Hours before she was set to take the oath of office to become New York’s 57th governor and the first woman to lead the state, the federal government announced full approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for people ages 16 and up — paving the way for more employers to demand vaccinations.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would be requiring all public school employees, including teachers, administrators and building staff, to have at least once dose of the vaccine by Sept. 27, two weeks after the start of classes.

And during his last day on the job, Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who announced his resignation Aug. 10 following a bombshell report by State Attorney General Letitia James office that found he sexually harassed several women — offered some parting “advice” on how to tackle the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

He urged Hochul to pass new laws for vaccination requirements and enforcement, calling for mandatory employee vaccinations in a state that’s lost more than 53,000 residents to COVID-19.

“Teachers must be vaccinated for their protection, and for our children’s protection. Masks must be required in high risk areas and private businesses must mandate proof of vaccination for large gatherings,” Cuomo said in a pre-taped farewell address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks in New York City during, June 8, 2020.
Andrew Cuomo
Governor Cuomo’s Office

“Now, this simply will not happen without a state law mandating that it happens. Local politics are too intense. Private businesses cannot and will not enforce the law. Local police must be mandated to do that. But we must take these actions. Let us remember political procrastination is COVID collaboration,” the outgoing governor added.

Monday evening, Cuomo issued a statement saying “every single employer in New York State should require all eligible employees to get vaccinated.”

The calls put added pressure on Hochul as she takes on the state’s top job as fights over masks and vaccine mandates are roiling much of the nation amid a rise in COVID-19 cases largely spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant.

Hochul plans to make a vaccination-related announcement on Tuesday, during her first official, vision-setting speech as governor, according to people familiar with the matter. A Hochul spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘Every Little Bit Counts’

Increasing New York’s vaccination rate will be no easy feat for the incoming governor.

Cuomo recently announced a vaccine mandate for workers at health care and long-term care facilities — as well as for state employees, requiring those who aren’t vaccinated to undergo weekly testing. De Blasio has required vaccines or regular testing for the city’s municipal workforce of 300,000, while ordering that restaurants, gyms and other indoor facilities turn away customers who can’t prove they’ve gotten their shots.

Still, there’s been pushback — from some unions to litigious restaurant owners to employees in sectors from hospitals to public transit vowing to defy vaccine orders.

Despite mandate and incentives — such as referral programs, cash bonuses and scholarship opportunities and free donuts — vaccination rates have largely stayed stagnant, with about 21% of New York State adults unvaccinated.

That number has to drastically decrease given that the Delta variant is twice as contagious as the original strain of the virus New Yorkers experienced in the spring of 2020, said Dr. Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

So far, just over 66% of the entire state population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is available to people 12 and older, according to health data.

“If you have a variant that’s more contagious, your level of vaccination in the population has to be that much higher,” Justman said.

While Cuomo suggested new laws to increase the vaccination rates and bolster enforcement, his administration has provided relatively little help for schools — punting the decision to Hochul, who will have to wade through a crowd of particularly adamant anti-vaxxers.

New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker attends a press conference with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the Jacob Javits Center.
New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker is sticking around for the time being.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Cuomo Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker — who will serve the Hochul administration for the time being, according to sources — declined to provide state guidance on school reopening. That’s left local districts to figure out how to interpret federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations and decide policies on masks, distancing, quarantines, vaccinations and more.

Cuomo himself had stated that he lacked the legal authority to impose a statewide mask mandate on schools, something Hochul said she plans on implementing when she takes the top office after seven years as lieutenant governor.

“Having kids wear masks in school right now is a good idea. And I understand that they won’t wear the mask perfectly all the time. But I think that every little bit counts, and every chance that you have to reduce your exposure is going to add up to less exposure,” Justman said.

‘It’s a Big Deal’

The new spike in cases has also prompted City Hall to require school staff to get the jab.

“We want our schools to be extraordinarily safe all year long,” de Blasio said at a news conference Monday. “We know this is going to help ensure everyone is safe.”

More mandates are likely on the horizon now that the Food and Drug Administration’s approved Pfizer’s vaccine, said Arthur Caplan, the director of the division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

“Many employers, companies and even some governments were hesitant to try and go with a mandate when the vaccines were only out there on what’s called emergency use authorization,” Caplan said, citing lawsuits filed by employees seeking to bar the vaccination requirement.

“You’re just going to see more comfort in mandating a licensed vaccine. Some people were also reluctant to take something that wasn’t fully licensed, it just made them nervous,” Caplan told THE CITY. “It’s a big deal.”

Students were socially distanced during the start of the new school year at One World Middle School in the Bronx, Oct. 1, 2020.
The city is requiring vaccinations and masks at public schools.
Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office

Other city employees might face their own vaccine mandate in the coming weeks, but the priority now is on people working with students, especially those under 12 who aren’t eligible yet for the vaccine.

“Our first priority is keeping our kids safe and the schools open. The city’s teachers have led the way on this issue, with the great majority already vaccinated,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union.

“While the city is asserting its legal authority to establish this mandate, there are many implementation details, including provisions for medical exceptions, that by law must be negotiated with the UFT and other unions, and if necessary, resolved by arbitration,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Legal Battle Looms

Under the city’s collective bargaining law, mayoral officials are required to negotiate with unions to enact this policy, officials said. Previously, the mayor had made weekly testing a requirement for un-vaccinated employees.

Later on Monday, Henry Garrido, the executive director of District Council 37, which represents some school employees, said his union and others would file an unfair labor practices complaint against the city.

“While we strongly encourage our members to get vaccinated, we do not believe that the city has the legal authority to change the terms and conditions of employment without bargaining,” he said in a statement.

De Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said they did not anticipate any teacher resignations or other fallout from the mandate.

“I expect our staff members to get vaccinated,” Porter said Monday.

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