Acting Mayor Kim Janey made an unforced error on Tuesday, when she compared mandatory-vaccine policies at restaurants to slavery and Donald Trump’s birtherism. She acknowledged as much on Thursday, saying at a press conference that she regretted her choice of analogies. But the damage is done: Her words gave fuel to anti-vaxxers, trolls, Russian state media, and right-wing outlets nationwide that have been trying to foment hysteria around COVID-19 vaccines, and gleefully pounced when a Massachusetts Democrat seemed to back them up.
The reality is that imposing vaccine-mandate policies, like the one New York City recently instituted for restaurants and gyms, is the kind of hard decision that city leaders may need to make more of as the Delta variant spreads, vaccination rates flag, and death and hospitalization numbers tick upward again. Officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York who act to protect public health in their cities don’t deserve to be smeared when the real problem right now is leaders who aren’t taking the virus seriously enough.
The controversy began when Janey was asked about the New York policy, which requires that patrons show they’ve vaccinated against COVID-19. New York has developed a vaccine-pass system that diners can use to demonstrate their vaccination status. But Janey likened that requirement to the way Trump demanded to see Barack Obama’s birth certificate and to the passes that enslaved people were required to carry in antebellum America.
That inflammatory rhetoric was completely inappropriate, as her rivals in the mayoral race quickly pointed out. New York’s policy may or may not prove effective, but simply asking people to show vaccine status is certainly not grounded in hate and oppression. (Indeed, if simply asking for proof of immunization is some bigoted imposition, one wonders why the Boston Public Schools require proof of vaccination status for childhood diseases, and even notes on the district’s website, in boldface letters, that “documentation of immunizations is extremely important.”)
In an interview with the Globe editorial board on Wednesday, Janey said the point she was making was that a vaccine requirement at restaurants would have a disproportionate impact on people of color, who are less likely to be vaccinated and thus would be more likely to be barred from restaurants. “I am not willing to say, ‘50 percent of Black folks cannot go to this restaurant,’ ” she said.
But if that’s what she wanted to convey on Tuesday, she could have just said that. What she said instead was, “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,” she said. “As recent as, you know, what the immigrant population has to go through here. We heard Trump with the birth certificate nonsense.” She was clearly criticizing the very idea of asking for proof of vaccination, not raising doubts about what the sort of impact such policies would have.
Janey said Wednesday she’s trying to view pandemic policies through an “equity lens” to avoid health measures that have a disproportionate impact on people of color. But the people who will suffer most if jurisdictions don’t take strong steps against the virus are people of color. An equity lens would suggest the city needs more tools to stop the spread of COVID-19, not fewer. Taken to its logical conclusion, Janey’s argument would suggest that no mandate at health care providers, schools, or other settings should go into place until the racial vaccination gap disappears, since such mandates would also disproportionately impact people of color. It’s the responsibility of governments to close that gap, not use it as a reason to delay health measures.
In any case, the wisdom of mandates is a separate question from the standards we should expect from leaders in the middle of a pandemic. Janey is certainly not the first politician to make incendiary comments related to COVID-19 vaccines. Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene recently compared businesses that don’t admit unvaccinated people to Jim Crow segregation. Others have compared vaccine requirements to the yellow stars Jews were required to wear in Nazi Germany. For people in positions of power to bring those historical monstrosities into the vaccine discussion is unhelpful, to say the least.
By coincidence, another Democratic politician also addressed vaccine requirements at restaurants on Tuesday. President Joe Biden, asked whether more places should institute rules like New York City’s, said, “I do.” He also said, speaking about businesses that impose workforce vaccine mandates, “Look, I know this isn’t easy — but I will have their backs.” That’s the kind of message that officials should be sending to employers, municipalities, and others trying to do the right thing amid an unprecedented crisis.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.