Nearly 80 million adult Americans remain unvaccinated against Covid-19, which is causing an upsurge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths as the highly contagious delta variant spreads. With most of the unvaccinated either indifferent or resistant to the idea of halting the spread of this now-preventable disease, calls are growing for the Biden administration to make vaccines mandatory nationwide.
There are better ways to end the coronavirus pandemic once and for all. A federal vaccine mandate would generate a predictable backlash by anti-government, anti-vaccine, anti-civility Americans that would revive the Trump-era culture war over “freedom.” It’s tempting to say so what, let the anti-vaxxers rage, if it helps reach some of the others who might get the shot if the government told them to. But more stupid Covid battles won’t be productive, and besides, Joe Biden ran as a conciliatory presidential candidate tolerant of different views. He’d be undermining his own campaign pledge by reigniting us-versus-them political tribalism.
Other methods are already proving to be more effective at upping the vaccination rate, and they start with the private sector. Some employers, especially health care providers, are beginning to mandate vaccinations for their workers, especially those at worksites with other employees. This is likely to pick up steam, perhaps rapidly, as a few things happen.
First, lawsuits are beginning to validate the right of employers to require vaccinations, as long as they provide exemptions for religious or medical reasons. As that becomes entrenched in the law, more employers will require the shots, as Google now plans to do. Some employers are holding out for the Food and Drug Administration to end the emergency-authorization of the vaccines, and approve them as fully authorized medications. Once that happens, it will remove any remaining hesitancy among employers, especially smaller ones, wondering if they could face lawsuits for requiring vaccines. It will probably also give employers a clear basis for firing workers refusing to get vaccinated.
The full return of workers to offices and job sites, or as full as the new workplace gets, will probably compel more employers to require vaccines, as a means of providing a safe work environment. Once vaccines are fully authorized, it’s not hard to imagine the legal burden shifting, with more lawsuits against employers if somebody gets sick in a workplace where vaccines are not required.
President Biden plans to require all federal workers to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing, as do New York and California. Perfectly legit. Governments are employers like every private-sector business, with the same obligation to protect employees. There will probably be legal challenges, and the governments will probably win. Some federal workers will probably quit in protest, which will eliminate bad apples and tighten the protection against federal workers getting Covid on the job.
Cruises in Florida
These same factors could add to the incentives for recreation and leisure providers to require vaccines among their customers. The state of Florida is locked in litigation with the federal government and at least one cruise-line operator over federal rules requiring proof of vaccination for people boarding cruises at American ports. The Centers for Disease Control safeguards include required vaccinations for cruisers, which the cruise industry supports. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has sued to overturn the guidelines, for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with protecting customers or workers or turning a profit.
Judges have ruled both ways, with more hearings coming. For now, the federal guidelines stand. But let’s say the courts strike down the federal guidelines and unvaccinated people are free to board cruise ships in Florida. It’s almost inevitable there will be highly publicized outbreaks on cruise ships, with cruisers getting sick and maybe dying. This was a ruinous PR nightmare for the cruise industry at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and nobody in the business can want to go through that again. If Florida gets away with sabotaging these businesses, some may look into cruising from ports in other states, or adopt workarounds such as requiring proof of vaccination once ships get to a different port. Business interests will overcome political tomfoolery.
Some public health officials are already urging Americans not to travel to Florida, as if it’s some disease-ridden banana republic. Delta outbreaks among the unvaccinated have set back Florida’s economy and made it the biggest Covid hub in the country. Imagine if a public-health collective including hundreds of respected physicians began to formalize travel advisories for U.S. cities and states based on subpar vaccination and infection rates. At the moment, tourist hubs such as Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Sarasota, New Orleans, Memphis, and Jackson, Wyo., are in counties with the highest Covid transmission rates, according to the CDC. Those are areas where the CDC now recommends everybody, including vaccinated people, wear masks indoors—not exactly the kind of freedom tourists might be looking for on a vacation.
More vaccine requirements to come
As legal precedents mount, there will probably be more vaccine requirements at concerts, sporting events and other mass gatherings. Airlines could end up requiring proof of vaccination. An alternative to vaccine passports is a negative Covid test within a few days of participating in a given activity, which becomes a nuisance if you have to do it repeatedly. It may dawn on people getting repeat Covid tests to go to work or attend public gatherings that vaccination is a lot simpler.
If there must be government mandates, it’s best they come from the most local form of government possible. Citizens tend to know local government leaders in a more intimate way than the Washington suits they rail at on cable news. And local governments can tailor guidelines—or mandates—to local needs and mores, which the feds can’t do.
For now, governors in many of the high-transmission states—who are largely Republican—have rebelled against the CDC’s new indoor-masking guidance. That’s knee-jerk know-nothingism among conservatives who feel duty-bound to reject everything coming out of Biden’s Democratic administration. Their states will pay an economic cost as rising infection levels spook some consumers and workers and scare off visitors.
There is going to be a Covid underclass for the foreseeable future—groups of people who refuse to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, and accept the consequences. Some have quit their jobs rather than get vaccinated. Others become incapacitated with Covid, and some even die, because of vaccine obstinacy. This is a shrinking subset of the population, however. Vaccine refusers who get Covid and survive develop natural immunity, while others will eventually find the cost of going unvaccinated too high to bear. We’ll never vaccinate everybody, but the natural forces of capitalism and biology will get the job done, even if it takes longer than desired.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.