On the same day that New York City authorities announced new rules requiring proof of vaccination for workers and customers at indoor restaurants and gyms, Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s administration said Boston has no plans to follow suit. Asked about New York’s move, Janey emphasized Boston’s efforts on vaccine access and then invoked slavery and Donald Trump’s birtherism.
“When it comes to what businesses may choose to do, we know that those types of things are difficult to enforce when it comes to vaccines. There’s a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers whether we’re talking about this from the standpoint of, you know as a way to, after, during slavery, post slavery,” Janey said during a Tuesday public appearance, according to audio from WCVB. “As recent as, you know, what the immigrant population has to go through here. We heard Trump with the birth certificate nonsense.” (Before Trump was elected president, he publicly fueled false rumors and stoked conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace.)
Janey, who is the first woman and first Black Bostonian to serve as mayor, continued, “Here, we want to make sure that we are not doing anything that would further create a barrier for residents of Boston or disproportionately impact BIPOC communities.”
She is in the midst of an increasingly pitched mayoral race that features four other major candidates, and her handling of the pandemic will likely be closely scrutinized by her political opponents. Her Tuesday comments drew reaction from multiple mayoral rivals.
“When we are combating a deadly virus and vaccine hesitancy in some communities, this kind of rhetoric is dangerous. Showing proof of vaccination is not slavery or birtherism,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell. “There is already too much misinformation directed at our residents about this pandemic, particularly Black and brown residents and it is incumbent upon us as leaders, particularly those of us who are Black, not to give these conspiracies any more oxygen.”
A spokeswoman for mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George, also a city councilor, said she “believes the only thing we should be focusing on is getting shots in arms, which is critical to ending this pandemic.”
“We should all be able to agree on that,” the spokeswoman said. “We need to stop making this a politically charged issue.”
Councilor Michelle Wu, in response to Janey’s comments, said in a statement that “Anyone in a position of leadership should be using that position to build trust in vaccines.”
The Boston Herald first reported on Janey’s comments, which were made at Boston police’s annual National Night Out luncheon.
Janey attended a block party in the North End on Tuesday night, and responded to questions about her earlier comments.
“What I said was there is a long history of asking people to show their papers. What our focus here in Boston is in making sure that everyone has access to the vaccine, making sure that we are doing everything to vaccinate our workforce in the city of Boston, making sure that our residents have access to the vaccine,” Janey said.
Janey reiterated that 60 percent of Boston residents have had at least one shot of the vaccine.
“I think we will continue to be informed by the data and do what is best for Boston,” Janey said. “As it relates to requiring vaccines wherever we go, we know that it will have a disproportionate impact on poor families in particular, in communities of color, and so our focus is to make sure that we are getting those numbers up, in terms of the vaccine, and making sure across every single neighborhood across every single race across every single age group that we have better numbers.”
Stephanie Garrett-Stearns, a Janey spokeswoman, said Janey has no current plans for “business sector vaccination mandates” but “has been meeting with restaurants and bars to discuss overlaps between their clientele and new COVID-19 case trends.”
Some bars and restaurants in Boston and Cambridge are already asking customers to show proof of vaccination during the latest surge in COVID-19 infections.
COVID-19 cases have increased in Boston with the emergence of the Delta variant, “but we are still well below threshold levels that have guided policy decisions throughout the pandemic,” Garrett-Stearns said.
Citing a recent uptick in cases and hospitalizations, Janey last week said the city is “leaning toward” a vaccine and testing mandate for city workers. Her office has acknowledged that such a move would need to be collectively bargained with the city’s various municipal unions. But questions remain, including how many would need to take tests regularly to prove they were COVID-19 free. City authorities said Monday they do not track vaccination status for the city’s 18,000-strong workforce.
Last week, with the virus once again surging because of the Delta variant, President Biden announced sweeping new pandemic requirements aimed at boosting vaccination rates for millions of federal workers and contractors as he lamented the “American tragedy” of rising-yet-preventable deaths among the unvaccinated.
Federal workers will be required to sign forms attesting they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else comply with new rules on mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing, and more.
Officials in New York City and California have also recently mandated vaccines for their government workforces.
In Boston City Hall there have been fresh vaccine and testing requirements, with City Council President Pro Tempore Matt O’Malley requiring all in-person council staff to show proof of vaccination or a weekly COVID-19 test starting Aug. 30. Additionally, hospitals, some nursing homes, and many private colleges and universities in Massachusetts are requiring vaccines for employees.
Last month, officials in Cambridge, Provincetown, and Nantucket urged residents and visitors to wear masks in indoor public spaces as new outbreaks have been reported.
As she ponders a vaccine and testing mandate, Janey has already made a significant decision on masking, saying earlier this month that Boston Public Schools 50,000 students will be required to wear masks when they return to classrooms in the fall.
Boston’s novel coronavirus caseload has topped 72,500, including 1,400 deaths.
Correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report. Material from Bloomberg was also used.