Republicans see masks and vaccines as stifling freedom, but it’s actually the best way to restore it

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In New York City, anyone 12 years of age or older must show proof of vaccination—at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine—to enter a restaurant, a bar, a nightclub, or any place that qualifies as “indoor dining.” The same goes for a sporting event, movie theater, museum, play, bowling alley, or any other “indoor entertainment” activity, as well as meetings held in a hotel, convention center, or event space, and any “indoor fitness” activity, including pools, gyms, dance studios, and more. Additionally, all employees at any of these sites must be vaccinated.

These requirements fall under the “Key to NYC” vaccine mandate, which went into effect on Aug.17. After a relatively short grace period lasting until September 13, the city authorized fines: $1,000 for a first violation, $2,000 for a second violation committed within a year, and $5,000 for a third violation committed within a year of the second one. Not insignificant penalties. The only places falling into one of the aforementioned categories that were exempt are K-12 schools, child care, senior, or community centers, or a “​​location in a residential or office building the use of which is limited to residents, owners, or tenants of that building.”

There’s reasonable and then there’s sarah palin

Obviously, vigorous enforcement is crucial to people feeling safe, and thus to making this freedom real. That’s why it was so infuriating to read that the unvaccinated former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, was able to enjoy a meal at a Manhattan dining establishment on Jan. 22, and then tested positive for COVID two days later. The manager who worked that night says he was checking vaccination cards, but apparently there was an oversight, and Palin wasn’t checked because she entered with a regular whom the manager already knew had been vaccinated.

To top it all off, after testing positive Palin went back and ate again at the same restaurant, as well as another one in the city. However, now she was required to eat outside, where the mandate does not apply, and where the likelihood of transmission to a staff member or even another patron not at her table is miniscule. The fact that she violated the requirement to isolate after testing positive only further demonstrates her selfishness and absolute lack of any morality whatsoever. We all have to be responsible for one another, as well as protect ourselves.

To be sure, this incident has a relatively uncommon set of circumstances, and thankfully there is only one Sarah Palin. Furthermore, there have been no reports of NYC restaurant patrons faking vaccine cards (not that I’m suggesting Palin did so) to any significant degree. Doing so can earn one a year behind bars, and screwing with computer records to electronically fake proof of vaccination status is a felony that brings with it up to four years in the hoosegow. I have a hard time believing a lot of people are willing to risk that in order to experience indoor dining.

There is real evidence indicating that these vaccine mandates are working. In the first month after NYC started enforcing Key to NYC, the percentage of all Americans who had received at least one dose rose by a little over 2%. To quote Dom DeLuise from History of the World, Part I (much to Mel Brooks’s delight, Part II is finally on its way, only 40 years later): “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling. But nice.” In The Big Apple, however, the vaccination rate jumped by 9%—four times the increase seen nationwide.

As those in the land of reality know, vaccinations are the most powerful weapon we have in curtailing this pandemic—with masking and social distancing where possible as vital tools as well. The data shows an exceptionally strong overall correlation between high vaccination levels and lower deaths from COVID-19.

the wrench that is omicron

The omicron variant has, without question, thrown a new variable into the COVID-19 mix. Evidence strongly indicates that, despite being more contagious, it thankfully is less likely to result in severe illness, hospitalization, and death for those infected. Additionally, we know that vaccines and boosters are highly effective against omicron, in terms of both preventing infections and, most importantly, severe cases that lead to hospitalization and death. Their effectiveness was greatest among those over the age of 50, which is vital because most deaths have occurred among senior citizens. For those of us who have received all our shots, the danger—even at the height of omicron—was far, far lower than it was a year ago. That reality translates into much greater freedom, especially now that most Americans live in a place where omicron’s peak has passed.

Some areas have ramped up their vaccine mandates, at least in part as a response to omicron. One such area is my hometown of New York City. As of Dec. 14, children 5 to 11 had to demonstrate proof of having received one vaccine shot to enter places covered under the Key to NYC guidelines. By Dec. 27, everyone over 12 had to show proof of being fully vaccinated—that’s two shots for Pfizer and Moderna, or one for Johnson & Johnson, while kids ages 5 to 11 must do so as of Jan. 29.

Additionally, by Dec. 27 all private-sector employees had to be fully vaccinated, not just those who work at a Key to NYC location. (On a related note, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a statewide indoor mask mandate that will run until Feb. 1, at which point it will be reevaluated. It will not apply at places that already require proof of vaccination in order to enter, such as those covered by Key to NYC.)

Here’s then-Mayor Bill de Blasio (his term ended Jan. 1), announcing the newest steps: “We in New York City have decided to use a preemptive strike to really do something bold to stop the further growth of COVID and the dangers it’s causing to all of us.” On the day the private sector mandate became operative, de Blasio further commented: “I am 110% convinced this was the right thing to do, remains the right thing to do, particularly with the ferocity of Omicron … our best defense is to get everyone vaccinated and mandates have worked.”

A vaccine mandate for all those employed by New York City began on Nov. 1. Fewer than 1% of municipal workers were out of compliance and forced to go on unpaid leave as of Nov. 10. There have been no reports of significant disruptions in service due to public agencies or departments being short of employees due to the mandate, despite hyperbolic predictions that such disruptions would come to pass.

Check out the jumps in vaccination rates from the time the mayor announced that mandate in mid-October to Nov. 15, after it had taken effect, among some of the most previously hesitant groups of municipal employees: NYPD: 70% to 86%, sanitation workers: 62% to 87%, firefighters: 60% to 87%, EMS: 61% to 92%, NYC Housing Authority employees: 59% to 85% (more data further demonstrating the trend is here). As of Jan. 24, 85% of all New Yorkers over 18 were fully vaccinated (compared to 74% nationally). More vaccines = fewer cases, fewer hospitalizations and serious illnesses, and fewer deaths from COVID-19. The mandates have made a major impact, and have won praise.

Vaccination rates for NYPD jumped from 70% to 86% after the mandate.

Those who oppose vaccine mandates—whether issued by a government or a private entity—always focus on freedom. They wax poetic—actually, their utterings are almost never poetic—about freedom to choose and bodily autonomy. Arguments in favor of vaccine mandates have rightfully focused on the common good, countering the freedom-based anti-mandate argument with talk of “public duty” and arguing they are “ethically justified.”

I agree.

However, we who support mandates must emphasize that we value freedom as well. We value the freedom that comes with living in an area that is highly vaccinated, and where one can go into a public place, indoors, and feel confident that everyone else in the place with whom we’ll have to interact closely has also been vaccinated. That’s a very valuable kind of freedom—the freedom to reclaim at least a semblance of our pre-COVID lives.

To be sure, not everyone is able to do that or feels comfortable doing so. Those who are immunocompromised, those who cannot be vaccinated, and those who have underlying health conditions are still not likely to feel comfortable taking advantage of the opportunity to go to an indoor location like the ones covered by NYC-style mandates. The same goes for anyone who lives with a person in that condition, as well as people with children under the age of five, who are not eligible for vaccines yet—and it may be a while, due to delays in the vaccine trials. Hopefully, the data will be ready for evaluation by April. Even though all these folks benefit from living in a highly vaccinated area, the mandates don’t give them as much of a sense of freedom.

There are also plenty of people, disproportionately lower-income folks and Americans of color, who’ve had little choice about whether to avoid indoor places since the start of the pandemic. Essential workers couldn’t wait for a mandate before going into restaurants, grocery stores, or hospitals to do their jobs. There are also the people taking public transportation, where there have long been mask mandates in NYC at least, but no requirement to be vaccinated in order to enter. Thankfully the data indicates that public transportation has not been a site of significant spreading of COVID-19—which is a relief as although there is a mask mandate, most people don’t want to have to be the enforcer if someone isn’t wearing a mask or if they’re wearing it the wrong way (although I do know someone who relishes doing so, and they know who they are).

how far we’ve come

Despite these important caveats, vaccine mandates not only make everyone safer, they are giving large numbers of people a degree of real freedom—not just the freedom to roll the dice and cross their fingers when they enter a public indoor space, but the freedom to begin to live life again without feeling like they are playing Russian roulette. These mandates are making a difference.

Please recall where everyone was back in March or April of 2020. I know I was scared to go into a supermarket, and stayed home period unless I had no choice. Think about the loss of freedom older people and people who are immunocompromised in particular have experienced over the past year and a half. It’s not much of a choice to restrict one’s activities if the alternative is an unacceptably high likelihood of serious illness or death. Perhaps the past couple of years have helped all of us understand a bit more about what immunocompromised folks go through all the time, whether or not we’re living through a pandemic.

Now, even with omicron, I feel safe from serious COVID-related harm while doing grocery shopping or going to the pharmacy because, in addition to being masked, vaccinated, and boosted, I know everyone who works there has gotten their shots as well. Vaccines, and vaccine mandates—as well as other safety measures like masking and social distancing of course—have changed so much, and given many people (not everyone, sadly) back so much more of their freedom than they had in 2020.

To bask in the Republican brand of freedom, the Trumpist right would have you go to a place like Florida. In fact, in December Fox News published an op-ed—more a manifesto, really—from a right-wing New York Post columnist named Karol Markowicz declaring she and her family would “with some sadness and a lot of anger” have to leave New York City for the state full of Florida Men, which she referred to as “a state we’ve come to regard as the beacon of freedom in this country.” How right-wing is she, you may ask? The former New Yorker also wrote a piece called “Meet the anti-Fauci: Florida’s Sane Surgeon General, Joseph Ladapo.” To use Markowicz’s word, Ladapo is sane enough to have downplayed the pandemic as “COVID mania,” and denied the reality that vaccines, masks, and quarantines work.

freedom and florida?

Here’s the thing about freedom and Florida. They may not allow vaccine mandates there, but the government recently sought to place some severe limits on freedom of thought or expression, at least for those at the University of Florida doing research and coming to conclusions that disagree with Gov. DeathSantis—whether on COVID-19, racism, election fraud, or any number of other topics (the University launched an investigation and it looks like the courts will side with the professors).

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 10: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on during the third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 2021 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Actually, Gov. DeathSantis, it only helps when you wear the mask over your nose and mouth …

And that took place after this even more egregious effort by the state to intimidate Rebekah Jones, a scientist trying to tell the truth about COVID-19 cases in the state. So much for the whole idea of valuing the free exchange of ideas and scientific inquiry—the kind that will, in the end, enable the world to finally overcome COVID-19, whether the governor of Florida and his ilk like it or not. Oh, and good luck, Ms. Markowicz. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. By the way, over 6,000 more people have moved to NYC than have left from July through November of last year.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio is one of the very worst Republicans, and that is saying something. On Dec. 2, he reinforced that status by tweeting out “Real America is done with #COVID19. The only people who don’t understand that are Fauci and Biden.”

Speaking of real, Americans who live in the real world know that even though the situation is thankfully improving day by day right now, unfortunately, we aren’t done with COVID-19. Not by a long shot, despite what people like Jordan or Bari Weiss—who used similar words recently on Bill Maher’s HBO show—have to say. But we know something else too. There are steps we can take as individuals and there are measures we can enact as communities to improve our chances of either avoiding the virus altogether or avoiding a severe case if we do catch it.

Going forward, we must celebrate the progress we’ve made because this pandemic has been so hard on people emotionally, mentally, physically, and economically, and—even as we remain vigilant—must shout from the rooftops about what vaccine mandates can do for large numbers of Americans. These measures enhance our freedom by making our public places markedly safer.

Otherwise, we won’t be able to win the battle of public opinion, and we may find ourselves moving backward on COVID-19, and thus on our public health. We cannot allow that to happen.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)





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