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Acting Mayor Kim Janey, in heated race, faces new scrutiny over not yet requiring vaccinations for city workers

Acting Mayor Kim Janey said she’ll follow the data.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey said she’ll follow the data.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Acting Mayor Kim Janey counseled and pleaded with city residents Thursday, encouraging them to get shots and protect themselves from the raging Delta variant of the coronavirus. She did not require, however, that city employees get vaccinated.

Though she did not rule out doing so in the future, the lack of a hard line on a vaccine mandate is putting Janey back in the spotlight amid a heated and close mayoral contest, in which her leadership in the pandemic is under close scrutiny.

“To be candid, I think it’s the wrong move,’' said Matt O’Malley, the acting City Council president who earlier this week ordered all staff members of the council who work inside City Hall to show proof of vaccination or results from a weekly COVID-19 test starting Aug. 30.

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The lack of a mandate from Janey, who vaulted into the mayor’s office earlier this year after former mayor Martin J. Walsh became US labor secretary, triggered a range of views among constituents Thursday.

“It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t,’' said Victoria Williams, who chairs the Ward 12 Democratic Committee in Roxbury and worked for the city for 37 years before retiring.

Williams urged that more be done to increase vaccination numbers, noting the pandemic’s toll in the city’s Black community and the desperate efforts to persuade hesitant residents to get a shot.

“Absent the mandate, there needs to be more of an engagement with everyday people in the community to continue to encourage them [to be vaccinated],’' she said.

At a press conference in City Hall Thursday, Janey said her administration will follow the public health data, ease the process of getting vaccinated, and work with the public-sector unions “on any plan that we implement, including a potential mandate.”

She provided fresh statistics on the city’s ongoing battle against the virus, noting that Boston is trending in the wrong direction.

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“After months of extremely low and declining cases, we have seen a marked increase in COVID activity in Boston over the last several weeks,” Janey said. “The majority of people affected by the increase in COVID positivity in Boston are individuals between the ages of 20 and 39 years old.”

The city’s current test positivity rate, she said, stands at 2.7 percent. As of Tuesday, Boston had logged 704 new cases in the prior two weeks, for a total of 71,914 since the start of the pandemic, she said.

While “vaccinations are the best protection we have,’' Janey added, “I have also strongly encouraged the wearing of masks during the course of this pandemic.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Walsh was still mayor, he received praise for his decision making, although some businesses and residents chafed at restrictions as the months wore on. He nixed South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, sent students home from school, and suspended construction in the city.

But the dynamic is different now.

Janey’s calls will undoubtedly be picked apart by the four other major candidates in the mayoral contest, at least two of whom already have called for her to mandate city workers get vaccinated.

She made a significant decision earlier this month, announcing that 50,000 Boston Public Schools students will be required to wear masks when they return to classrooms in the fall. But whether she will consider a broader indoor mask regulation remains to be seen.

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On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask-wearing guidance, suggesting that fully vaccinated people now wear masks in indoor, public places in areas of the country that have either “high” or “substantial” risks of transmission. Suffolk County, which includes Boston, falls into the substantial category.

Reaction to Janey’s remarks Thursday was mixed across the city, ranging from cautious praise to sharp criticism, particularly as pressure mounts nationwide for more people, including municipal workers, to be vaccinated. President Biden announced Thursday that federal workers will be required to attest they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else face mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing, and other new rules.

Officials in New York City and California recently mandated vaccines for their government workforces; in Massachusetts, many businesses and higher education institutions have, too. Last week, officials in Cambridge, Provincetown, and Nantucket urged residents and visitors to wear masks in indoor public spaces as new outbreaks were reported.

Governor Charlie Baker said he is reviewing the latest CDC guidelines.

Eldin L. Villafañe, a government relations strategist and a former political director for a local union, said a vaccination mandate for the city government workforce “seems like a no-brainer.” But he also acknowledged that such a measure could draw a “mixed reaction.”

“Ultimately the mayor’s going to make tough choices and a case like this, with such a cataclysmic, global health crisis, the right decision is to think of the greater good, the health of the public employees, along with the safety of those they serve every day,” he said. “What other choice does she have?”

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Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said in a statement that he is encouraged “the mayor is interested in sitting down with the city’s many unions to discuss ways to best protect the men and women we represent, their families and the citizens of Boston. Clearly, we want to do all we can to protect our officers and the city they protect and serve.”

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said union leaders have been in conversations with the Janey administration, Boston Public Schools officials, and health experts with the aim of having a “thoughtful plan to ensure that all workers are safe.” She said a decision on a mandate should come sooner rather than later.

Some progressives applauded Janey’s leadership on the matter. “She was in front of the CDC in requiring masks to be worn while inside the City of Boston’s buildings including Boston Public Schools, students and staff,’' said Anne Rousseau, cofounder of Jamaica Plain Progressives,

O’Malley, the acting council president, cited “alarming trends in data as it relates to the Delta variant” and how easily it is transmissible have prompted government agencies, colleges, and businesses to issue vaccine mandates.

“We need to take some bold but effective measures so that we don’t revert to where we were a year ago,’' O’Malley said.

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City Councilor Andrea Campbell, one of Janey’s mayoral rivals, also criticized the acting mayor for not requiring a mandate or engaging with the unions earlier. Campbell said she thought Janey should consider indoor mask mandates for restaurants and certain businesses.

Caitlin McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission, said this week that while Boston has seen an increase in both cases and its positivity rate in recent weeks, there have not been dramatic increases in hospitalizations or emergency room visits.

“And we are still far below our thresholds for concern and our goals,” she said in an e-mail, pointing out that more than 60 percent of Bostonians are fully vaccinated.




Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.