What to Know
- New York City announced last week it was expanding its COVID-19 vaccine mandate to all public employees with no test-out option; the mayor says those who protect the city must be protected themselves
- The deadline for those workers, who include firefighters, police officers, transit officers and many essential employees, to show proof of at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose is 5 p.m. Friday
- City Hall says it has enough vaccinated workers to cover any potential shortage but time will tell; the FDNY expects 20% of fire companies closed and 20% fewer ambulances on the road come Monday
New York City's Uniformed Firefighters Association, which represents about 9,000 active members, and hundreds of members of other public unions marched by the hundreds Thursday in protest of the mayor's imminent vaccination mandate.
Protesters carrying American flags and holding signs with messages like "#NaturalImmunity" descended en masse at Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio's official residence, at 11 a.m. to begin their vocal trek through Manhattan streets.
It's the latest in a series of such protests and comes about 30 hours before the mayor's 5 p.m. Friday deadline for all municipal workers to show proof of at least one vaccine dose or face unpaid leave.
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There is no test-out option. The new rules affect more than 160,000 workers (including police, firefighters and correctional officers) who aren't vaccinated. (See a breakdown of vaccination rates by city agency further down in this story.)
About 65% of firefighters are vaccinated, along with 80% of EMS members, according to updated figures the mayor shared Thursday afternoon. UFA President Andrew Ansbro has said he'd order those who opt not to get inoculated to report for duty anyway -- claiming otherwise, there wouldn't be sufficient personnel to staff them.
"They will be closing fire houses if you don't have enough firefighters to staff them and that's absolutely what's going to happen if you send 30% of the fire department home," Ansbro said at Thursday's protest. "The mayor should really avoid this upcoming catastrophe. This is really an absolutely unnecessary threat."
Should it come to that, de Blasio said Thursday any such situation would be handled on a "managerial level," as has been the case with "any agency."
In a Twitter message ahead of the planned march, the union warned, "The only thing that can stop NYC firefighters from fulfilling their oath is the mayor not fulfilling his" -- and played an old clip of de Blasio saying, "The government is supposed to listen to us when we say something is important."
"We are telling you THIS is important, Bill. Why won't you listen?" it continued.
In announcing the expanded vaccination mandate last week, de Blasio said those whose jobs it is to protect the public must do so in part by protecting themselves. People shouldn't have to worry the first responders hired to keep them safe could infect them with a virus estimated to have killed nearly 35,000 city residents alone.
"How do we keep people safe? That's the entire question here. My job is to keep people safe," the Democrat insisted Thursday. "Until we defeat COVID, people are not safe. If we don't stop COVID, New Yorkers will die. We must stop COVID -- and the way to do that is vaccination and that must include our public employees. In fact, they need to lead the way. That's the overarching reality."
What some are worried about, though, is a potential shortage of first responders for emergencies. The FDNY is looking at the potential for as many as 20% of fire companies to be closed and 20% fewer ambulances on the road come Monday.
De Blasio has insisted that there is enough vaccinated manpower to keep the city safe. He acknowledged the city doesn't have substitutes on hand, as was the case when there was talk of a potential teacher shortage ahead of the Department of Education vaccine mandate, but said a plan would come if one is needed.
"These are organizations used to crisis and disaster and they know how to keep things going," de Blasio said Wednesday -- and doubled down on that Thursday.
The mayor has said there's been a notable uptick in city employees getting vaccinated since his announcement and he expects a particular surge Friday.
And if that doesn't happen? FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro ensured continuity of operations and public safety in a statement late Wednesday. He also acknowledged the challenge.
NYC Workforce Vaccination Rates by Agency
|% of Agency w/ at least 1 dose|
|Agency||Tuesday, 10/19||Wednesday, 10/27|
"The department must manage the unfortunate fact that a portion of our workforce has refused to comply with a vaccine mandate for all city employees," Nigro said. "We will use all means at our disposal, including mandatory overtime, mutual aid from other EMS providers, and significant changes to the schedules."
That could mean canceled vacation time and pulling in aid from voluntary units, including private hospitals, and volunteers to help a depleted EMS corps. Employees who initially resist the mandate and later opt to comply can come back.
The NYPD, whose union lost its latest legal challenge to the mandate, is making similar contingency plans even as the PBA announces an appeal to the decision.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea recorded a video reminding the holdouts that "we will be sending again notifications to people that our records say don't have the vaccination and then we are planning for contingencies at the same time."
As of Wednesday, the commissioner said 73% of NYPD officers are vaccinated, with 800 doing so the day before. Shea went on to say that the number of those adhering to the mandate changes "minute by minute at this point."
By Thursday, de Blasio said the share of vaccinated NYPD members was 74%. Across all municipal agencies, there were still 37,600 unvaccinated workers as of Thursday morning. When the mandate was announced on Oct. 20, thee were 46,000 — meaning 8,400 workers have gotten the vaccine since the eight days since the announcement.
The mayor's office added a perk -- an extra $500 in the paychecks of city workers who get their first doses at a city-run site before the deadline -- though it's not clear how effective an incentive that will be for those so adamantly opposed.
First responders were exceedingly hard hit by COVID early in the pandemic, contracting the virus as they responded to calls amid a chaotic unknown. UFA says more than 70% of its members were infected at some point. Hundreds of FDNY members, along with NYPD officers, have died of the virus since March 2020.
The same mandate takes effect for uniformed city corrections officers on Dec. 1.