As the city’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandate took effect Saturday, some 500 protesters marched through the Fenway to show their opposition to the policy, and Mayor Michelle Wu spoke out about how early morning demonstrations at her Roslindale home have impacted her neighbors and family.
During a news conference at Whittier Street Health Center, Wu said she is accustomed to public criticism but said the disruptions are unfair to her neighbors, including a 96-year-old veteran who lives next to her and families with young children.
The protests, she said, are a byproduct of widespread misinformation that the city seeks to neutralize with its vaccine mandates.
“I think it’s important to shed a light on where we are as a country. That there is deeply rooted misinformation that we need strong policies to counteract,” she said. “Every day I’m reminded of that at my house, and every day it makes me surer that Boston needs to lead the way on these policies.”
On Twitter, Wu described a question posed to her Friday by one of her sons as the family was celebrating her birthday.
“Yesterday at dinner my son asked who else’s bday it was bc the AM chant was “Happy birthday, Hitler,” wrote Wu, who has two sons, ages 7 and 4.
“To have a chance at healing & building community, we can’t keep normalizing hate,” she wrote. “They’ve shouted on megaphones that my kids will grow up without a mom bc I’ll be in prison.”
City Council President Ed Flynn offered support for Wu at the news conference.
When his father, Raymond Flynn, was mayor of Boston, Flynn said, demonstrators sometimes gathered outside the family home in South Boston, but those protests didn’t carry the fervor on display in front of Wu’s home.
“I think the difference is the level of intensity that’s happening today wasn’t there when my father was mayor,” Flynn said. “And I honestly believe some of it is related to an anti-Asian sentiment that we have in this country.”
Wu is Taiwanese American. The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to anti-Asian hate that was fueled in part by remarks from former president Donald J. Trump, who used xenophobic terms to label the virus.
Frederica M. Williams, president and chief executive of Whittier Street Health Center, said the vaccine mandate will save lives, help the economy, and improve working and living conditions. The center is planning to hold vaccination clinics at City Hall beginning Tuesday to help vaccinate more municipal employees.
“We know that the science and the evidence-based data shows that vaccines, boosters, and compliances with the CDC COVID-19 infection control guidelines are the best strategies we have to save and improve lives,” Williams said. “The prolonged negative impact of the virus and the continued increase in the infection rate and the unpredictability needs to be addressed.”
As of Jan. 10, the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate was nearly 32 percent and Boston was averaging 2,519 new positive cases daily, a 16 percent increase from the week before. The virus has killed 1,554 Boston residents as of Friday, the city said.
The latest vaccination data show more than 81 percent of city residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 70 percent of Boston’s population is fully vaccinated. Booster shots have been administered to 208,368 residents, according to state figures.
Before Wu’s news conference, about 300 people gathered in the Fenway neighborhood to demonstrate against the vaccine mandate. Protesters chanted “Shame on Wu” and “Back the blue, not Michelle Wu,” as they marched toward Newbury Street, with their ranks growing to about 500 people. Some carried signs that included messages like, “My body, my choice” and “I used to live in a free country.”
A Boston Fire Department engine was among vehicles on Brookline Avenue blaring horns in support of the protesters, drawing raucous cheers from the crowd. The march spilled into the road, reducing traffic to one lane. Marchers waved American flags and displayed the “thin blue line” symbol that represents public safety workers.
As the procession reached the corner of Park Drive and Boylston Street, a woman got out of the Subaru Impreza she was driving and assaulted demonstrators, according to David Procopio, a State Police spokesman.
The 51-year-old woman, Sarah Coutts Fahey of Brookline, was arrested and charged with assault and battery, he said. She is expected to be arraigned when the courts reopen after Monday’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The Globe sent her an e-mail Saturday seeking comment but got no response.
Some of the protesters live and work outside of Boston.
“I should not be discriminated against because I don’t want a vaccine that I don’t trust,” said Rosetta Windle, 38, a mother of two from Mashpee. “Someone needs to stand up to the politicians that are passing these mandates.”
Demonstrators also gathered outside Wu’s house Saturday morning, and three protesters shouted at her as she left Whittier Street Health Center.
“She’s gaslighting the public,” said Michelle Efendi, a Randolph resident who was demonstrating against the vaccine policy outside the health center. Efendi said she is not vaccinated against COVID-19.
On Dec. 20, Wu ordered the mandatory vaccination of all city employees and set Saturday as the date for workers to have received at least one shot of a vaccine. The measure eliminated an option for workers to be tested regularly for COVID-19 instead of being vaccinated. Failure to comply could lead to firing, the administration has said.
Three public safety unions challenged the mandate in court but on Wednesday, a Suffolk Superior Court judge rejected their request to block the new rules from being implemented.
As of 10 a.m. Saturday, 17,435 city workers had complied with the requirement, Wu said, including about 700 employees who got at least one vaccine dose ahead of the deadline. She said it would take several more days to determine the number of workers who are not in compliance with the requirement as the city reaches out to those employees individually. The city employs about 18,000 people.
Workers can apply for an exemption on religious or medical grounds. Wu said her administration would begin reviewing those applications Tuesday. As of Saturday afternoon, she said, she didn’t know how many workers had applied for an exemption.
Under the mandate, Saturday also marked that first day that people seeking to enter certain indoor spaces in Boston, including restaurants, bars, gyms, and entertainment venues, must show proof that they’ve had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Restaurant workers asked patrons to show proof of vaccination.
“Everyone has been, for the most part, really respectful and have been aware of the mandate,” said Sarah Kowal, a barista at Phinista Cafe in Fenway. “We’ve just been seeing a lot of folks pull out their phones and show a picture.”
The state has launched an online website where residents can obtain a QR code to show proof of vaccination, and the city has an app called B Together to do the same.
Wu said she expects the process to run more smoothly as the public acclimates to the mandate.
“Once it is fully implemented, it becomes part of the culture and the regular rhythm of small businesses,” she said. “It is really not intended to be overly burdensome.”