Those of us who have behaved responsibly — wearing masks and, since the vaccines became available, getting our shots — cannot be held hostage by those who can’t be bothered to do the same, or who are too deluded by misinformation to understand what is so clearly in their own interest.
The more inconvenient we make life for the unvaccinated, the better our own lives will be. More important, the fewer who will needlessly die. We cannot ignore the emerging evidence that the delta variant is transmissible even by those who have been fully vaccinated. “The war has changed,” as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded.
President Biden recognized this new reality with his actions Thursday. He announced that federal employees must be vaccinated or mask up and submit continuing proof that they are not infected; he urged private employers to do the same; and he encouraged the use of federal funds to prod — okay, bribe — the unvaccinated to step up.
If anything, Biden didn’t go far enough. He should have imposed a tighter mandate on federal workers and contractors — no frequent testing option as an alternative. He should have required vaccines for airline and railroad travel. He should have mandated vaccines for members of the military rather than kicking that can a few weeks down the road.
If I sound exasperated, I am, and I don’t think I’m alone. I have been looking forward to going back to my office — or backish, since it likely won’t be full-time — in a few weeks. Now, with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) having wisely reimposed a mask mandate in the city, it’s hard to see how we’re going to actually pull that off. Better to straggle along on Zoom, seeing one another’s faces, than mask up for eight hours or more.
I have been looking forward to attending synagogue for the Jewish holidays in September, to going to dinner in indoor restaurants with friends, to resuming real life. I have been appreciating the ability to see my 86-year-old mother without fear of infecting her; now I have to worry anew about her getting on a plane to come visit us, as she was planning.
As I was writing this, a vaccinated friend texted to say he had tested positive. He’s not very sick, but he could have infected others who are more vulnerable. This variant is no joke.
It’s reasonable, it’s fair, and it’s legal to step up the pressure on the reckless noncompliant. By reckless, I mean to exclude some people: If you have a medical condition that counsels against vaccination, you are excused.
If you have a good-faith religious objection, same — although I have a hard time imagining what that might be beyond adherents of Christian Science, or what religion does not advocate some version of the Golden Rule. Yes, some fetal cell lines were used in the development or testing of the vaccines, but the Vatican has declared that it is “morally acceptable” to take the vaccines, and that reasoning seems solid.
And speaking of morally acceptable: How galling is it that some labor unions are resisting the vaccine mandate? The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the American Postal Workers Union and the American Federation of Teachers, which also represents health-care workers, are insisting that any mandate be the subject of bargaining. No. Show some leadership. Just tell your members to get the damned shot — for the sake of their colleagues if not themselves.
Federal judges have already rejected challenges to vaccine mandates by hospitals and public universities. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made it clear that federal anti-discrimination laws don’t prevent private employers from requiring proof of vaccination. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded that federal law “does not prohibit public or private entities from imposing vaccination requirements” for vaccines even at the emergency-use stage.
A century ago, balancing the tension between individual liberties and public safety, the Supreme Court upheld the ability of state and local governments to enforce mandatory vaccination laws. “In every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members,” wrote Justice John Marshall Harlan, “the rights of the individual … may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”
Then the great danger was a smallpox epidemic. Today it is a global covid-19 pandemic. The “safety of the general public” demands a “reasonable” response today, just as it did in 1905.