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Janey says she regrets comparing proof-of-vaccination requirement to slavery, birtherism

Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey.
Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

Acting Mayor Kim Janey said Thursday that she regrets invoking slavery and birtherism in response to New York City’s proof-of-vaccination requirement for workers and customers at indoor restaurants and gyms.

Janey, who also said her staff is “working toward” a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, said she had intended to raise concerns about how a requirement like that in New York might affect people in Boston neighborhoods with lower vaccination rates, including some with large proportions of people of color.

“I wish I had not used those analogies, because they took away from the important issue of ensuring that our vaccination and public health policies are implemented with fairness and equity,” Janey said.

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Still, Janey said, “vaccine passports” for public places remain a non-starter in Boston.

“If vaccine passports were imposed today with a government mandate to ban [unvaccinated] residents from venues like restaurants or gyms, that would shut out nearly 40 percent of East Boston, and 60 percent of Mattapan,” Janey said. “Instead of shutting people out, shutting out our neighbors who are disproportionately poor people of color, we are knocking on their doors to build trust and to expand access to the life-saving vaccines.”

She emphasized steps the city is taking to boost vaccinations.

“We’ve implemented a mask mandate for our schools, and now we are working with our municipal unions toward a vaccine mandate” for the city workforce, Janey said during a City Hall news conference. “We are actively working toward a mandate for vaccine or regular testing for all City of Boston employees.”

A vaccine mandate for municipal employees could present complications, according to legal experts, who have noted there would probably need to be exemptions for people whose religious beliefs are at odds with them becoming vaccinated, people who are immunocompromised, and those who are pregnant. If those carve-outs don’t exist, there would be the potential for litigation.

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Janey said the city would have a “rigorous testing program” in place to protect the workforce if there are any unvaccinated employees “due to religious beliefs or other items.”

“The goal, however, is to get all our city workers vaccinated. That, again, is the best protection against this deadly virus. And the Delta variant is not to be played with,” she added.

Janey said 90 percent of the city workforce are unionized and that her administration has done outreach to the pertinent labor groups, adding that establishing a vaccination and testing program for school staff and those others who work with unvaccinated populations remains a top priority. She said she would have more news to share on that front next week.

“We are taking a very worker-centric approach,” she said.

Janey is in the midst of an increasingly pitched mayoral race that features four other major candidates, and her handling of the pandemic is being closely scrutinized by her political opponents.

Indeed, on Wednesday, Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is also running for mayor, ripped Janey’s handling of the public health emergency, saying “she’s taking too long” to implement a vaccine and testing mandate for the city workforce.

With the ongoing spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, officials in New York City and California have mandated vaccine-and-testing regimes for their government workforces. Similarly, millions of federal workers are also subject to sweeping new pandemic measures aimed at boosting vaccination rates.

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Boston has yet to take such a step.

And Janey has been reluctant to take actions similar to the prove-you’ve-got-a-vaccine-to-enter requirements in New York, whose new rules go into effect Aug. 16.

During her initial comments Tuesday on the New York requirements, Janey said she thought it would be “difficult to enforce.”

“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 then, 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 Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he publicly fueled false rumors and stoked conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace.)

Political opponents seized on Janey’s comments, with Campbell calling them “absolutely ridiculous” and mayoral candidate John Barros referring to them as “misleading rhetoric.”

Janey’s opposition to a proof of vaccine mandate for restaurants and gyms places her at odds with other city lawmakers, including Campbell, fellow councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu, and Matt O’Malley, City Council president pro tempore.

O’Malley has already required all in-person council staff to show proof of vaccination or a weekly COVID-19 test starting Aug. 30, in a move that would affect more than 100 workers. Additionally, hospitals, some nursing homes, and many private colleges and universities in Massachusetts are requiring vaccines for employees.

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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. And Janey has already made a significant decision on masking, previously saying that 50,000 students in Boston Public Schools will be required to wear masks when they return to classrooms in the fall.

A June poll conducted by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe showed Wu and Janey pulling ahead of the rest of the pack in the Boston mayoral race. In the poll, Wu garnered 23.4 percent support, Janey 21.6 percent, and Councilor Annissa Essaibi George 14.4 percent, while Campbell had 10.8 percent. Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, polled at under 2 percent.

The preliminary election will be held Sept. 14. The top two vote-getters from that contest will advance to the Nov. 2 general election.


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.