When Mayor Michelle Wu announced in December that she would put in place a proof-of-vaccination mandate for Boston restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues, officials from several other Massachusetts cities stood with her in a show of support.
“I’m so grateful to have regional mayors and municipal health officials here, city councilors, state representatives,” Wu said during a City Hall event, “because fighting this pandemic will require shared action and partnership.”
But her call for unity has produced mixed results.
Some of the leaders in attendance that day did not gain the backing from local officials or public health boards that they needed to carry out a proof-of-vaccination requirement. Salem and Brookline have moved forward with a mandate, but Arlington, Cambridge, Medford, and Somerville ― all of which originally voiced support for Boston’s effort ― have not.
Arlington’s town manager, Adam Chapdelaine, said he was encouraged by Wu’s initiative, but knew a mandate would only carry weight if neighboring communities followed suit. When Cambridge and Somerville pulled out, that changed things for his town. The main concern was that unvaccinated people would patronize businesses outside of Arlington that did not require proof of vaccination.
“The script gets flipped if no one is doing it,” Chapdelaine said. “We have high vaccination rates, and we would be on an island, potentially harming our businesses.”
Salem’s mayor, Kim Driscoll, however, said she moved quickly to order a mandate in Salem because hospital beds in her part of the state were filling rapidly, including at Salem Hospital. She was hoping more communities would act similarly, since “our health care system works regionally.”
“It’s unfortunate that we do this one city or town at a time,” Driscoll said, “because I do think it hampers our ability to effectively combat the virus.”
Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said a proof-of-vaccination policy would have been more effective if it were implemented statewide by the governor, instead of leaving it up to 351 cities and towns.
“People will go into different places with different requirements in a single day,” Draisen said. “Business owners and restaurant owners in Arlington will legitimately say, ‘Well, why should I have this requirement when people can literally walk down the street to Cambridge?’”
Some business owners said a regional or statewide mandate would take the pressure off of individual establishments, spur more people to get vaccinated, and make customers feel safer about going out.
Tracy Chang, owner of Pagu in Cambridge, implemented her own vaccination mandate last summer for the restaurant’s employees and patrons. She was optimistic that Cambridge would follow Boston’s lead, given that Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui supported it.
Then Chang learned the decision in Cambridge was up to the city manager, Louis DePasquale. He shot the proposal down during a City Council meeting, saying Cambridge would continue to prioritize “education and outreach over punitive enforcement.”
“It’s like that feeling in college when your team loses the game,” Chang said. “Just disappointment.”
Others are glad a proof-of-vaccination mandate isn’t catching on.
Frank Nash, president of Massachusetts Independent Fitness Operators, said the decision should be left to business owners.
“There are some gyms that have been enforcing vaccine mandates since last summer because they thought their members wanted them to do that,” Nash said. “For other gyms, there wasn’t that incentive.”
Medford’s mayor, Breanna Lungo-Koehn, who supported Wu’s call for a mandate in December, said she considered recommending one to the local Board of Health, but ultimately decided against it because of the city’s high vaccination rate and an emphasis on “trying to get our businesses back up and running.” Medford requires proof of vaccination only at large entertainment venues, such as the Chevalier Theatre. It chose not to extend the rule to small businesses.
Still, she said, a broader mandate makes sense for Boston.
“Boston is the hub of the entertainment life where all of our residents are going to dine, to go to bars, to go to clubs,” Lungo-Koehn said. “[Wu’s] decision is a little different than mine.... I am not surprised that more [cities and towns] haven’t followed suit.”
Arlington’s Board of Health cited enforcement challenges as one of the reasons it was not interested in implementing a mandate.
“The health department is already stretched, and we know all of our businesses are stretched and struggling,” said Dr. Marie Walsh Condon, chairwoman of the Board of Health, during a Zoom meeting Thursday. “I think there’s a more effective use of our time and energy.”
The mandate didn’t pass in Somerville because the Board of Health concluded the policy wouldn’t be effective. Dr. Brian Green, chairman of the board, said it wouldn’t “have any effect of decreasing transmissibility in the restaurants and gyms.”
After several large municipalities pulled out of the vaccine mandate plan, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association sent a letter to Wu Thursday, urging her to rescind the policy in Boston.
Bob Luz, president of the group, said the mandate is starting to hurt business at some Boston restaurants.
“Many guests don’t want to deal with it, or maybe one member of their dining party is not vaccinated for one reason or another,” he wrote. “Now they simply choose to dine in another city.”
When asked about the restaurant association’s letter during a news conference over the weekend, Wu encouraged people to support small businesses.
“We’re doing everything we can on our end to keep the workforce safe... keep our customers and the public safe,” she said.
Chang said her mandate actually appears to be providing a much-needed boost. Sales at Pagu are above pre-pandemic levels for lunch and dinner sales combined, even though the restaurant is only offering dinner service.
There have been some negative online reviews, and a few confrontations at the door, she said, but overall the reaction has been positive by a wide margin. Chang said many customers have mentioned that they feel safer eating at Pagu than at establishments where they are not privy to the vaccination status of other diners.
Draisen said he believes some municipalities might reconsider implementing a mandate, depending on how it plays out in Boston.
Since Boston’s proof-of-vaccination policy went into effect Jan. 15, the Health Division has not levied any fines for violations, but issued one verbal warning to a business for not complying, and received 23 complaints about potential violations, according to a spokesperson for the Wu administration.
“We like to see how things go locally,” the MAPC’s Draisen said. “Of course, there will be less pressure to implement it after the surge.”