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Mayor Wu announces new vaccine requirements for some indoor businesses, city workers

Several leaders from the Greater Boston area joined Boston Mayor Michelle Wu at the press conference at City Hall.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday announced new vaccine requirements for indoor dining, fitness, and entertainment establishments in the city and strengthened a vaccine mandate for the city’s 18,000-strong workforce as COVID-19 cases multiply.

Beginning Jan. 15, patrons of affected businesses will be required to show proof of vaccination. Additionally, the city is requiring all its employees to be vaccinated and eliminating an option for city workers to be regularly tested instead of being vaccinated.

Under the new mandate, city workers will have until Jan. 15 to receive a first vaccine dose and until Feb.15 for the second dose, unless they are granted medical or religious exemptions.

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Starting March 1, children ages 5 to 11 will have to show proof of at least one dose to get into restaurants and some other businesses, and that age group will have to show proof of full vaccination starting May 1.

“There is nothing more American than coming together to ensure that we’re taking care of each other,” Wu said to applause.

She praised front-line workers during a briefing on the new policies at City Hall, where she was at times drowned out by a few dozen anti-vaccine demonstrators whistling, chanting “Shame on Wu,” and singing the national anthem.

Some carried signs. One read “My mayor is not my doctor.” Others carried American and “blue lives matter” flags.

Among those in the crowd criticizing the new policy was Geoff Diehl, a former Republican state lawmaker and Donald Trump-backed candidate for governor. Diehl’s campaign released a photo showing him standing with people rallying against the new requirements; a campaign spokeswoman said it was taken Monday morning at City Hall.

Diehl called Boston’s new rules “clear violations of the civil rights of anyone who lives in, works in, or travels to the city.”

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There was also pushback from organized labor. Jim Durkin, legislative director for AFSCME Council 93, which represents about 2,000 city employees, said the vaccine mandate should be negotiated with unions, something that has yet to happen. He added that a testing option should remain.

“Mandates are difficult for employees to accept,” he said in a phone interview. “Particularly difficult in this situation because workers are going on nearly two years without a contract.”

Shana Cottone, a Boston police sergeant who is a representative of Boston First Responders United, a group that has more than 250 members from Boston police, fire, and EMS, said Wu was violating union agreements with the new mandate. She favored allowing for a testing option, saying that “we realize COVID is a threat.” She said receiving a medical or religious exemption has proven to be difficult for city workers, calling such carveouts “a farce.”

“This is about control,” said Cottone, who was speaking in her personal capacity not as a representative of Boston police. “It’s about compliance.”

For her part, Wu said her administration is in conversations with municipal unions.

“We know that as cases go up, it is necessary to protect everyone who interacts with city government, to have full vaccination among the work force,” she said.

The new requirements for some indoor spaces will be enforced, after a lengthy outreach period, with penalties and fines. The vaccine requirement for city workers will be a condition of employment, she said, meaning they could be fired if they do not comply.

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Jonathan Levy, a public health professor at Boston University, said Wu’s move was “better late than never.” Levy expected the Omicron variant to have “major impacts” in coming weeks but also added that announcing such a policy without sufficient lead time to allow the unvaccinated to get shots would be unfair to those individuals.

“This won’t solve the issue in the next few weeks but it’s an important step,” Levy said.

Demonstrators at Boston City Hall shouted and sang as Mayor Michelle Wu announced the new rules at a press conference Monday. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Regarding the city worker requirement, Wu said more than 90 percent of municipal employees already are vaccinated.

At the news conference, Wu was joined by elected leaders of other local cities, including Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, who voiced support for the policy and said their communities are following suit with similar measures. Curtatone said unvaccinated people are costing lives.

“I’m not here to fight for your conveniences,” Curtatone said to the demonstrators, adding that the vaccine requirement policy is meant to protect public health.

Wu’s office said other Greater Boston communities that plan to consider such policies include Brookline, Cambridge, Arlington, Medford, and Melrose.

Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur said in a statement officials in that community plan to explore such a policy, but “before making a decision we will engage with business owners and other members of our community who would be impacted.”

Wu announced the new rules as COVID numbers are rising sharply in the city. Her office said new “positive cases have increased 89 percent compared to two weeks ago” and the city is now averaging 369 new cases per day.

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COVID-related emergency department visits increased over the past week, and the city is averaging 229 adult COVID-19 hospitalizations per day, a 60 percent spike from two weeks ago., the mayor’s office said.

“This is a response that is rooted in science and public health,” Wu said.

She said the three types of businesses covered by the proof of vaccination requirement are indoor dining establishments including bars and restaurants, live entertainment venues such as theaters and sports stadiums, and indoor fitness venues such as gyms.

Jon Hurst, the head of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he didn’t oppose showing proof of vaccination but felt that it could be a burden on already-taxed retailers and restaurants who have struggled with unruly customers over the last few months.

“They increase costs and lower your sales,” he said, worrying that it could “prevent a lot of people from going into Boston.”

Hurst also said with federal and state COVID support long gone, municipal leaders who are rolling out proof of vaccination programs should be ready to step up and support retailers financially, either through the suspension of commercial property taxes or rent assistance.

Promoter Bill Blumenreich said he was disappointed to learn about the new rules, but he also didn’t disagree with them. He runs the 1,100-seat Wilbur theater, where he says all his employees are vaccinated. He worries that concert-goers might be even more reluctant to risk going out, particularly older music fans.

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“Does it hurt business? Yeah, it does,” Blumenreich said of the new Boston rules. “People are afraid to come out sometimes. [But] I don’t disagree with it at all. You’ve got to be safe.”

Some venues in the region already ask customers to show proof of vaccination.

Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said she anticipated the city’s case numbers to rise significantly next month. Ojikutu said the number of new Bostonians who are becoming vaccinated has “basically flatlined.”

“We have to implement something, to protect not only individuals, but people’s families and communities,” she said at Monday’s briefing.

Of those hospitalized with the virus in Boston, an estimated two-thirds are not vaccinated.

As of Dec. 14, 79 percent of residents have received one vaccine dose, while 68 percent were fully vaccinated. Of those who were fully vaccinated, 31 percent had received booster shots. For children between 5 and 11, only 30 percent had received their first dose.

With its new policy, Boston is following the lead of other major American cities. Earlier this year, San Francisco required vaccine proof for patrons over 12 for bars, clubs, theaters, and other entertainment venues, as well as gyms, health clubs, and yoga studios, with limited exceptions.

Over the summer, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that city would require proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms, and indoor entertainment venues. Los Angeles embraced similar requirements.

Wu’s predecessor, Kim Janey, declined to issue a blanket vaccine mandate for indoor public spaces, but she did require city workers to show proof they had been fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Sign outlying some of the new vaccine requirements during press conference at City Hall. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Janelle Nanos and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.




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.