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March 24, 2022

Adams draws union fire over vaccine carveout for major league players, performers

By Gwynne Hogan

New York City Mayor Eric Adams is lifting a vaccine mandate for professional athletes and performers, he announced Thursday, drawing ire from public sector unions whose members were fired after not getting their shots.

The new rules, first reported by Politico, will allow unvaccinated Mets and Yankees players back onto the field ahead of opening day on April 7 — including slugger Aaron Judge, who has dodged questions about his vaccination status. It also means Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, who was barred from playing home games due to the city mandate, could be back on the court at Barclays Center. The announcement Thursday continues Adams’ push to lift pandemic restrictions as a way of boosting the city’s economic engine.

“Today, the decision we’re making, we’re not making it loosely, haphazardly,” Adams said at a press conference at CitiField in Queens. “We’re not doing it because there are pressures to do it. We’re doing it because the city has to function.”

Last year, former Mayor Bill de Blasio and his health officials issued a series of separate orders which, over time, escalated the vaccination requirements for public employees, then patrons of indoor businesses like sports fans and, ultimately in December, all private employees. Separately at the end of 2021, Gov. Kathy Hochul also released a vaccine-or-mask mandate for indoor spaces.

Hochul rolled back her restrictions in early March as the wave of omicron infections started to subside, and Adams began doing the same shortly afterward. He removed rules for both schools and business patrons in early March — but left the workplace vaccine mandates in place for both public and private employees.

That meant unvaccinated players like Irving were still barred from playing on their home courts while out-of-town opponents could participate without their shots. Irving said last October that he objected to people “losing jobs to mandates" and said he was "standing with all those that believe what is right."
Officials Thursday said the new policy ends a confusing loophole in the vaccine rules.

But unions representing public workers who faced suspensions and terminations over the vaccine mandate for city employees quickly decried Adams’ decision as hypocritical. An estimated 1,430 city workers have been fired for failing to get their COVID shots, according to City Hall.

“We have been suing the city for months over its arbitrary and capricious vaccine mandate,” said Pat Lynch, the head of the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents NYPD officers, in a statement Thursday. “While celebrities were in lockdown, New York City police officers were on the street throughout the pandemic working without adequate PPE and in many cases contracting and recovering from COVID themselves. They don’t deserve to be treated like second-class citizens now.”

The head of the city's largest public sector union demanded that members who were terminated over the vaccine mandate be reinstated.

“These are the same essential workers who kept the City going during the height of the pandemic," said Henry Garrido, the executive director of DC 37, in a statement. "They deserve the respect and dignity of having their jobs back. They deserve to be treated equally to their private sector counterparts. We demand that those who lost their job over the mandate be reinstated.”

The city's teachers union likewise accused Adams of a double standard for "people of influence" and in a statement said it was "ready to discuss how exceptions could be applied to city workers."

Adams has promised a slow but steady rollback of restrictions if COVID-19 rates continue to improve, though on Thursday he said he was not yet considering rehiring terminated workers. This week, he pledged to lift mandatory mask wearing in schools for kids under 5 if local risk levels remain low. Federal health officials said Wednesday they were tracking a small uptick in cases in New York City as well as a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in New England. Both are due, they said, to the BA.2 subvariant of omicron.

Thursday’s announcement is a reversal from the mayor’s position just last week, when he said he wouldn’t be rushed to shift precautions to cater to any sports season.

Adams denied succumbing to pressure from lobbyists on the issue at Thursday’s press conference — city lobbying records showed former City Council Speaker Corey Johnson had been paid $18,000 by Brooklyn Nets attorney Jeffrey Gewirtz, to influence the mayor’s health care policy.