Shuttered firehouses, delayed trash pickups and fewer police officers and ambulances on the streets could soon become a reality in New York City as there are now only hours left for municipal workers there to comply with a coronavirus vaccine mandate.
Thousands of the workers have until 5 p.m. Friday to show proof they’ve gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Those who don’t get on board will be placed on unpaid leave starting Monday – a scenario that has labor unions warning of staffing shortages.
“My job is to keep people safe — my employees, and 8.8 million people,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a virtual news briefing on Thursday. “And until we defeat COVID, people are not safe. If we don’t stop COVID, New Yorkers will die.”
De Blasio so far has held firm on the mandate as firefighters rallied the same day outside his official residence, sanitation workers appeared to be skipping garbage pickups in protest and the city’s largest police union went to an appeals court seeking a halt to the vaccine requirement.
The city’s fire department said earlier this week that it was prepared to close up to 20% of its fire companies and have 20% fewer ambulances in service while changing schedules, canceling vacations and turning to outside EMS providers to make up for the expected loss of labor.
Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said the hard deadline “sets the city up for a real crisis,” while Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, has warned longer response times will “be a death sentence to some people.”
De Blasio said Thursday that the city has contingencies to maintain adequate staffing and public safety, including mandatory overtime and extra shifts — tools that he said were typically used “in times of challenging crisis.”
The mayor called the sanitation slowdowns “unacceptable” and said the department will move to 12-hour and Sunday shifts to ensure trash doesn’t pile up.
Nearly one-quarter of city employees covered by the impending mandate have yet to receive at least one vaccine dose as of Thursday, including 26% of police personnel, 29% of firefighters and EMS workers, and 33% of sanitation workers, according to city data. City jail guards have another month to comply.
“The department must manage the unfortunate fact that a portion of our workforce has refused to comply with a vaccine mandate for all city employees,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, who had COVID-19 in January, said his department was sending reminders to workers whose records indicated they hadn’t yet received a shot and that NYPD vaccination sites will remain open all weekend.
More than 700 officers were vaccinated on Thursday alone, the NYPD said, rushing to meet the deadline for the mandate and an extra incentive: workers who get a shot by Friday will get $500.
“On Monday, when this thing really starts being enforced, we’re going to check the vaccination status and if you’re not vaccinated, no pay and you’re going to be not able to work,” Shea said in a video message Wednesday to officers. “I don’t think anyone wants that to happen. I don’t think you want it to happen. I certainly don’t. We need you out there.”
Meanwhile, fire department officials are holding virtual meetings with staff, imploring them to get vaccinated.
A Staten Island judge on Wednesday refused a police union’s request for a temporary block on the mandate, but she ordered city officials into her courtroom next month to explain why the requirement shouldn’t be reversed. If the mandate is deemed illegal, workers put on leave will be given back pay, the city said.
Mike Salsedo, 44, was among hundreds of firefighters protesting Thursday outside de Blasio’s residence, Gracie Mansion. He told The Associated Press he believes he has natural immunity to COVID-19 after having the disease last year and doesn’t need to be vaccinated, a stance that’s contrary to the consensus among public health experts.
“I’m a man of faith, and I don’t believe that putting something manmade into my body is good,” Salsedo said.
Another firefighter, Jackie-Michelle Martinez, said the ability to choose was “our God-given right” as she questioned the city’s decision to move away from its previous policy, which allowed workers to stay on the job if they had a negative COVID-19 test.
“If the weekly testing is working, why are you, Mayor de Blasio, eliminating it?” she asked.
COVID-19 is the leading cause of death of law enforcement officers in the U.S., killing 498 officers since the start of 2020 compared to 102 gun deaths, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks police fatalities.
De Blasio on Thursday credited the impending deadline for moving the needle on vaccinations across city government. In the last week, the number of affected workers who’ve gotten at least one dose rose from 71% to 76%.
When the state required all workers at hospitals and nursing homes to get vaccinated, a last-minute rush of people to comply meant that few facilities experienced staffing challenges.
“We expected that a lot of the vaccinations would happen toward the end of the deadline,” de Blasio said. “We also know a lot of people make the decision once they really realize that they’re not going to get paid. That’s just the human reality.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.