A decree from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that took effect on August 17 requires businesses to ask customers for proof of COVID-19 vaccination. The city is deploying enforcers to make sure that some 23,000 restaurants and 25,000 nightlife spots across the city of 10 million comply. De Blasio presented the "Key to NYC" pass, which will also be required for entry to gyms and concert venues, as New Yorkers' best shot at freedom.
De Blasio's edict is a deprivation of New Yorkers' civil liberties. Although de Blasio portrayed the mandate as a ticket out of cyclical lockdowns and onerous capacity restrictions, it obviously will not bestow freedom on all New Yorkers. Those who decline to be vaccinated will be excluded from vast swaths of polite society for the foreseeable future.
Today's jab enthusiasts are correct that having a significant contingent of people without COVID-19 antibodies can wreak ever greater havoc as the virus mutates. But New York already has a high vaccination rate: As of the end of August, more than 69 percent of adults in the five boroughs were fully vaccinated.
In poorer boroughs where racial and ethnic minorities are concentrated, such as the Bronx (which is about 43 percent black and 55 percent Hispanic/Latino), 62 percent of adults were fully vaccinated. De Blasio's order will disproportionately exclude members of minority groups—including people who distrust the medical establishment, lack confidence in a new vaccine, or don't have time to take off work in the event of bad side effects—from public life.
For residents 65 and older, the group that is by far most at risk of dying from COVID-19, the citywide vaccination rate is quite high. More than 79 percent of elderly New Yorkers had received at least one dose as of August. Gotham has been vaccinating roughly 130,000 additional residents per week.
It is unclear whom de Blasio's order will help. The vaccinated already are well-protected from severe illness or death, even if they contract a breakthrough infection. Eradicating the disease entirely no longer seems like an option. COVID-19 will continue to circulate in America indefinitely, which, given the amount of movement within the country and from outside it, means new variants may continue to emerge. If the idea is to give vaccinated New Yorkers peace of mind that they can socialize with minimal risk of becoming dangerously ill, they have that already thanks to the vaccine.
Meanwhile, the mandated pass is an imposition on business owners already suffering after a very long year of state-ordered closures and capacity restrictions. Do we really want to make restaurant hostesses act as bouncers? Restaurateurs who thought their clientele would respond amicably to vaccination checks already had the freedom to ask.
Perhaps the biggest riddle of all: While vaccine passports may shield the vaccinated from the unvaccinated, they won't shield the unvaccinated from each other. Banished from public places, won't vaccine skeptics continue to fraternize freely, in private homes and in underground venues that pop up to cater to those who flout Hizzoner's rules?
For those who value living in a pluralistic society that honors expectations of medical privacy and allows people to act on matters of conscience without retribution from the state, a broad mayoral dictate like this one is appalling. American civic culture is already deeply fractured; requiring proof of vaccination will mean that people of different values, classes, political persuasions, and (judging from current demographic data) skin colors will have even fewer opportunities to rub shoulders. The mandate also denies business owners and their employees the ability to make such decisions for themselves, a burden on their wallets and their freedom of association.
Whether or not de Blasio succeeds in bullying the unvaccinated into getting jabbed, his order will create a de facto category of second-class citizens in a country that long ago promised otherwise.