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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Great that companies are telling workers to get shots. Too bad they’re telling the wrong workers.

A sign is posted on the front of the nightclub Oasis announcing that proof of vaccination is required for entry on July 29 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but: No, woke corporations are not going to stop the pandemic.

A flurry of firms have recently announced coronavirus vaccination mandates for their employees. Participating companies cut across industries, including tech (Google, Facebook, Uber); media (Netflix, Disney, The Post); finance (BlackRock, Morgan Stanley); and retail (Walmart, Walgreens). Some gyms and restaurants are requiring proof of vaccination from customers, too.

Such announcements have been hailed by covid-fearing workers, executives themselves, and politicians and pundits.

“We’ve always been guided to do the right thing,” said Harvey Spevak, executive chairman and managing partner of Equinox Group, which owns several fitness-club brands. “We’re about protecting the health and well-being of our community.”

President Biden likewise extolled business leaders for “stepping up,” saying that he knew these decisions weren’t easy and that he’d “have their backs.” Media coverage has similarly characterized companies as getting “tough,” implying that employers were taking daring or difficult stances.

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Dig a little deeper, and this assumption doesn’t quite seem correct. Companies instituting vaccine mandates aren’t getting “tough”; they’re usually giving in, mostly in limited circumstances when constituents demand such mandates.

Many companies that recently announced vaccine requirements have workforces or customer bases that already have high vaccination rates, judging from available statistics on vaccination by income, education, geography and other demographics. In many cases, firms first surveyed their workers or customers about their vaccination status, and only after confirming that almost everyone who’d be affected was already vaccinated did they require vaccination.

In other words: Companies are primarily imposing mandates on people who don’t need them.

Why? The way to lure higher-income, college-educated, mostly already-vaccinated people back to the office, the gym or indoor dining is to assure them that everyone nearby will be inoculated. This population wants their environment to be safe, after all.

Google and Facebook announced vaccine mandates on July 28, requiring employees to be fully vaccinated before returning to work in the offices. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Vaccine skeptics also value safety. They’ve just come to the opposite conclusion about what “safety” entails. Most of the unvaccinated believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that coronavirus vaccines are more dangerous than covid-19 itself, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Mandating shots for these workers or customers could alienate them.

Companies know it, too. In fact, some firms described as “requiring” shots are exempting the very populations who likely need the most motivation to get vaccinated.

Walmart and Walgreens, for instance, have mandates for white-collar corporate and “support office” employees but not for store and warehouse workers. Uber and Lyft’s policies apply to corporate employees working in offices but not to drivers — so, unfortunately, not to the people in public-facing positions, where covid is a bigger risk.

Equinox Group has announced a mandate for its more expensive gyms, Equinox and SoulCycle, but Monday’s press release didn’t mention a mandate for its much cheaper Blink Fitness chain. (A spokesperson says: “As demand for in real life experiences continues to grow, Equinox Group plans to introduce similar policies in all of its markets and will continue to follow all current local health guidelines.”)

Similarly, restaurateur Danny Meyer announced that all workers and indoor diners at Union Square Hospitality Group, his high-end restaurant enterprise in New York and Washington, would have to show proof of vaccination. “I feel a strong responsibility on our part, as business leaders, to take care of our team and our guests, and that’s what we’re doing,” Meyer explained.

But the policy is not being implemented at the equally delicious but more plebeian Shake Shack chain, a separate company that he founded and whose board he chairs. “Shake Shack will make the appropriate decision for them at the appropriate time,” Meyer told CNBC.

Yes, some organizations are mandating shots even for workers reluctant to get them. Tyson Foods, for instance, said only half of its U.S. workforce is currently vaccinated but shots will be required for everyone by Nov. 1 (“subject to ongoing discussions with locations represented by unions,” the company caveated).

But many widely touted announcements are, like so much about this pandemic recovery, K-shaped — with one track for white-collar workers likely to already be inoculated; another for blue-collar workers, statistically more likely to be holdouts.

Whatever the lofty rhetoric, Corporate America is not merely “following the evidence” or prioritizing public health. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why contradictory conclusions about vaccine mandates would be reached within a single firm. Rather, many companies are adopting whatever policy they believe will allow them to retain or attract the most employees and customers.

Honestly, it’s hard to blame them! Especially given widespread labor shortages and skittish consumers.

Unfortunately, announcements so far suggest that neither market pressures nor corporate benevolence is likely to move the needle much on vaccination rates. We’ll ultimately need more governments to order some version of legal mandates, as New York City just did for restaurants and gyms (including Shake Shack and Blink Fitness); and as Biden (sort of) did for federal government employees and contractors.

Absent such orders, companies will continue to prioritize the bottom line rather than public welfare. As they’re programmed to do.