President Biden on Thursday said federal employees and on-site contractors will be required to get COVID-19 vaccines or face regular testing and mask restrictions as he grows impatient with sluggish vaccination rates that allowed the delta variant to surge, threatening his economic recovery plan.
Mr. Biden, who outlined his orders at the White House, said workers must attest to their vaccine status and, if they refuse or are not immunized, wear masks on-premises, practice social distancing and face weekly or twice-weekly testing for the virus. Unvaccinated workers generally will not be allowed to travel for work.
“If, in fact, you’re unvaccinated, you present a problem to yourself, to your family and to those with whom you work,” Mr. Biden said from the East Room.
The president spoke in stark yet hopeful terms. He said Americans risk another dark season unless they come together.
“We’re coming back. We just have to stay ahead of this virus,” Mr. Biden said. “I know it’s frustrating. I know it’s exhausting to think we’re still in this fight.”
Mr. Biden directed the military to look into “how and when” it will add COVID-19 shots to its list of required vaccines for troops stationed around the world. Such a move would lump in the military with Department of Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses who face a direct mandate to get vaccinated.
“This is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent,” Mr. Biden said.
The directives are designed to spur vaccination by making life difficult for those who have refused the shots while setting the table for mandates in the private sector.
Mr. Biden credited a “Republican administration” with developing the shots and applauded Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey for speaking up as rates lag in redder parts of the country.
“Vaccines are safe, highly effective. There’s nothing political about it,” Mr. Biden said. “With freedom comes responsibility. So please exercise responsible judgment.”
The president’s plan drew fire from labor unions that don’t think their workers’ livelihoods should depend on getting the shots, signaling a high-profile fight over mandates that cities, states and corporate America are deploying after pleas and incentives fell short.
The American Postal Workers Union said it supports vaccinations but added that it is not the federal government’s role to require them. It said vaccination and testing issues must be negotiated with the union.
The Professional Managers Association, which represents many IRS managers, pointed out that the vaccines aren’t fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that rules should be left to management’s discretion.
“Consistent with vaccines for other illnesses, such as measles or influenza, PMA believes that agency leadership should have the discretion to determine whether any, some or all of their staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19,” Executive Director Chad Hooper said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said Mr. Biden’s announcement was “a slippery slope toward excessive government control,” though others welcomed the move.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, an AFL-CIO union that represents more than 25,000 workers at the Department of Justice, NASA and other agencies, said it supports a mandate as a way to keep workers safe.
“This country is in the middle of a terrible pandemic, more than 627,000 Americans are dead, and we don’t want any more of our members dying,” President Paul Shearon said. “As a union representing federal workers, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that our members’ workplaces are safe and healthy. We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot.”
The measures should affect roughly 4 million workers. The White House could not offer reporters an estimate of how many of them have already been vaccinated.
Stephanie Rapp-Tully, a partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm, said she is getting many calls about the rules from federal employees with potential objections.
She said workers with medical problems that make vaccination difficult should get notes from their doctors and those with religious objections need to “be prepared for when management comes.”
“Employees with these concerns need to start preparing and perhaps look at legal avenues for protecting their rights,” she told The Washington Times.
She said the employee testing program could be problematic, especially if it is conducted on-site, involves many workers and requires a long wait.
“Is that a part of the workday? Are people spending work hours for testing?” she said.
Mr. Biden implored private employers to follow his lead with their own mandates.
He said governors should consider giving $100 to those who get vaccinated and cited research showing that cash is an incentive. He told schools districts to hold at least one pop-up vaccination clinic for children 12 and older before the academic year begins.
He said the federal government will reimburse employers who let their workers take time off to bring family members to vaccination sites.
Mr. Biden outlined his plan one day after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said state workers must get vaccinated or submit to weekly tests, though patient-facing workers in state hospitals will be required to get the shots or lose their jobs.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced a similar vaccine-or-testing mandate on state workers as leaders search for ways to stiff-arm the virus while herding people into vaccine clinics because they will find regular testing and other hurdles onerous.
Corporate America leaped into the fray. Google, Facebook and Morgan Stanley were among those imposing vaccine requirements on workers who return to offices.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says employers can mandate vaccines so long as they don’t violate disability or civil rights laws. The Department of Justice issued an opinion that said workplace mandates are allowed under the vaccines’ emergency-use authorization — full approval may be months away — and judges so far have sided with employers over objecting students and hospital workers.
The pivot comes amid a stall in the COVID-19 vaccine campaign. Roughly half of the U.S. population — 49% — is fully vaccinated, according to federal data, far short of the 70%-plus that scientists recommend.
The daily rate of administered doses ticked upward in recent days, from an average of 430,000 to over half a million, but it has generally plateaued since a peak of more than 3 million per day in April.
Meanwhile, the delta variant is taking hold and filling hospitals in states such as Louisiana and Florida. New York City is worried that it will squander hard-won gains after a nightmarish 2020.
COVID-19 hospitalizations averaged over 29,300 in the latest week recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a 44% increase from the prior seven-day period though far below the peak of 123,000 in early January.
“Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love dying,” Mr. Biden said.
The worsening outlook threatens an economy that appeared to be reaching pre-pandemic levels. The gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 6.5% in the second quarter this year, up from 6.3% in the first quarter.
Leaders say the human misery, economic upheaval and stress from COVID-19 are largely preventable at this stage, with only a small fraction of vaccinated people getting infected and sick enough to require medical attention.
“It’s really about 98% are either unvaccinated completely or received one dose,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. “It’s unusual for a vaccinated person to require hospitalization.”
Mr. Biden said he doesn’t expect a repeat of the pre-vaccine days but is worried about rising infections and hospitalizations.
His administration recently advised vaccinated people to resume wearing masks indoors in high-transmission areas where “breakthrough cases,” though still rare, are statistically more likely.
“A mask is not a political statement,” Mr. Biden said. “But make no mistake: Vaccines are the best defense against you getting severely ill from COVID-19.”
Hospitality mogul Danny Meyer on Thursday went beyond his workers and said diners will have to show proof of vaccination if they want to enjoy his prominent restaurants.
Mr. Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group includes Gramercy Taven in New York and Anchovy Social in Washington, is betting the requirement will draw in customers because they will feel safe.
“This is the most logical thing I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Meyer told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “I’m not a scientist, but I know how to read data, and what I see is that this is a crisis of people who have not been vaccinated, and 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.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio applauded the restaurateur’s move and said other employers should copy it.
The Democrat said he understands that people are wary about a new vaccine but that the situation is clear: The vaccine will protect you, and the virus might kill you.
“Look, in the end, the thing you should be afraid of is the thing that just killed a bunch of people in our own communities,” Mr. de Blasio told HOT 97 radio on Thursday. “No one made that up. That’s not late-night television. They died, and they will keep dying if they’re not vaccinated. What are we talking about here? It’s really straightforward.”