When will New Yorkers ever be vaccinated enough to have their pre-COVID freedoms back?
That's the unasked question lingering over several new government mandates that went into effect this week. Beginning Monday, at the order of Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul, every business in the state was required by law to have every employee and customer show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, or make everyone inside their doors over the age of 2 wear a mask.
Violators face fines of up to $1,000. Enforcement is being left to county governments, of which an estimated one-quarter—almost all run by Republicans—have indicated they will not participate in.
"My health department has critical things to do that are more important than enforcing this, and I think small businesses have been through enough already," Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus told the New York Post, adding that his government rejects "using Gestapo tactics and going business to business and asking them if they are enforcing masking." (Paul Pettit, public health director for both Genesee and Orleans counties, made a similar if less hyperbolic point: "We do not have the capacity to enforce mask mandates, and enforcing mandates is not the best use of our limited resources at this point of the pandemic response.")
The two-shot vaccination rate for New Yorkers ages 12 and older currently stands at 81 percent. Six months ago, when Hochul's predecessor Andrew Cuomo lifted almost all statewide COVID restrictions, he did so because the Empire State had crossed the 70 percent threshold set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—not for full vaccination of everyone over age 12, mind you, but for single shots among adults.
"What does 70 percent mean?" Cuomo said then. "That means that we can now return to life as we know it."
The single-shot vaccination rate for New York adults is now 93 percent.
"The temporary measures I am taking today will help [slow the spread] through the holiday season," Hochul said in her original statement unveiling the mandate. "We shouldn't have reached the point where we are confronted with a winter surge, especially with the vaccine at our disposal, and I share many New Yorkers' frustration that we are not past this pandemic yet."
Contra Hochul, it is far from clear that even 100 percent vaccination would have prevented a third consecutive winter surge across the northeast, which currently has the highest rates of vaccination and coronavirus cases in the United States. Middlebury College in Vermont, for example, canceled in-person instruction last week after an outbreak of 50 cases on a campus whose vaccination rate is 99 percent.
The top three states in the country for case rates right now are New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine, followed closely by neighbors Massachusetts (5), Vermont (7), Connecticut (10), and New York (19). Yet measured by recent hospitalization rates, those same highly-vaccinated states rank, respectively, 9th, 25th, 16th, 34th, 38th, 31st, and 26th. None are in the top 20 for deaths.
"Massachusetts is the most vaccinated state in the country and yet here we are in a surge of COVID that is just as bad as where we were last year at this point," said University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Care President Eric Dickson in an NBC Nightly News scare story Tuesday night. This claim is preposterous—as of Tuesday, the Bay State's seven-day average of deaths was 17, compared to 51 last year.
Even before the advent of the omicron variant, which looks considerably more contagious yet preliminarily less deadly than the still-dominant delta, many epidemiologists were urging politicians and public health officials to worry less about case numbers and more about serious illness.
"In highly vaccinated areas," wrote infectious disease specialists Monica Gandhi and Leslie Bienen in Sunday's New York Times, "focusing on a different set of numbers, hospitalizations, rather than case counts, can better tell us how we're doing. America is in the slow process of accepting that Covid-19 will become endemic—meaning it will always be present in the population at varying levels."
That process of endemic-acceptance is slow indeed. Hochul, like many coastal Democrats, continues to emphasize cases over hospitalizations, blame worsening trends on individual behavior rather than seasonality, and shape policy around sticks rather than carrots. "This is a crisis of the unvaccinated. Did not have to be, totally preventable," the governor snapped Tuesday. "So if I sound a little frustrated, perhaps I am."
In the face of the omicron spread, there is a palpable desire to punish the unvaccinated, ratchet up the definition of "full vaccination" to include booster shots, and shrug at any discomfort (job loss, service denials, social isolation) meted out by blue-state governments onto the noncompliant.
As Reason's Robby Soave pointed out Tuesday, New York City has been running commercials showing glum teenagers excluded from fun-looking extracurricular and social events, warning parents that "your teen will miss out" unless you get them vaccinated. "Let your teens start being teens again!" runs the tagline.
That formulation gives the misleading impression that it is parents, not governments, preventing teenagers from full participation in what until two years ago was seen as normal life. Teens have been teens in Florida (and other states) since the fall of 2020, when public schools (quite unlike in New York City) opened back up full time, and where kids don't wear masks. The exclusion from athletic competition and band practice, the banishment from movie theaters and pizza joints, is a deliberate decision by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that went into effect this week.
"By putting that mandate on for the youngest New Yorkers for indoor entertainment, et cetera, we know a lot more kids are going to get vaccinated and that affects the whole household," de Blasio said Monday. This is true. It's also true that the city has a robust testing regime among unvaccinated public schoolkids, and that their positivity rate since September has been 0.32 percent, or just less than one per 300 tests.
The seven-day rolling average shows an increase in that number—up to 0.78 percent for students and staff combined, or about one for every 130 tests, as the winter surge hits Gotham. But contrary to hysterical politician predictions over the summer that schools would become superspreaders, these data underline what we've known for a year and a half: Congregate settings of children have been some of the safest places during the pandemic, for the very good reason that kids disproportionately do not contract, spread, or suffer from COVID-19 at anything like the rates adults do.
The citywide death rate during the pandemic has been 419 out of every 100,000 residents. For kids under the age of 18, that number is 2. Yes, de Blasio is targeting children with exclusionary punishments on the slim chance that they will catch COVID and spread it to an unvaccinated adult, but he is also doing it because he can.
There is plenty of room for pediatric vaccination rates to increase. While the 12–17 cohort is vaccinated at a 71 percent clip in NYC, 5–11s—who have only had access to the jab since the first week of November—stand at 22 percent. If Miracle on 34th Street were re-set in 2021 New York, little Natalie Wood likely would not have met Kris Kringle, on account of being barred by the government from Macy's.
Denial of service to a broad class of customers has a long and mostly unhappy history in the United States. It also, even in a COVID context, does not poll well—51 percent of Americans surveyed this month by Axios/Ipsos said they thought denying services to the unvaccinated should be illegal. There is, however, a strong partisan divide on pandemic intervention; that same poll found 78 percent of Democrats favoring workplace vaccine mandates, compared to 30 percent of Republicans. One of the reasons COVID restrictions are clustered in blue states is that some of them are quite popular there.
New Yorkers, particularly in the governing and journalistic classes, will likely be fine with punishing the vaccine-reluctant (and their children) for their own good, even if that means disproportionately marginalizing poor and minority communities. They may even be willing to accept the inevitable economic hit that comes with further burdening businesses and alienating their customers.
But what happens after the two-shot vaccination rate goes from 81 percent to 90 percent, maybe even 95 percent, and yet the cold weather and latest variant still increases case rates? How much government force will Democrats be willing to exert to achieve full compliance on minority communities that have lost trust in authoritative institutions? I guess we're about to find out.