CITY HALL — Aldermen urged city public health officials Thursday to move quicker on a possible vaccination requirement for high-risk public settings, pushing for a mandate similar to one that recently took effect in New York City.
The topic of a possible vaccine mandate for some public settings was broached Thursday during a City Council Committee on Health and Human Relations meeting, which included an update from public health Comm. Allison Arwady on the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chicago is averaging 948 news cases of COVID-19 per day, which is up “almost 80 percent from a week ago” though testing numbers were down last week, Arwady told aldermen Thursday afternoon.
“But still, very much we’re seeing a surge,” the city’s top doctor said.
Arwady also gave a brief overview of the new Omicron variant of the virus, which health officials announced on Tuesday had been detected in a Chicago resident, marking Illinois’ first case of the rapidly spreading variant.
With the presence of the new variant and the holiday season stretching on, Arwady warned that “boosters are increasingly going to be important.”
Possible vaccination requirement in public spaces
Two aldermen, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), compared the comfort they have experienced or are anticipating experiencing in New York City knowing restaurants require a vaccination for entry to dine indoors, attend theater productions and concerts and use gyms. Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the mandate to take effect Aug. 17 and stricter regulations for children are set to kick in next week.
“New York City is 10 percentage points ahead of us on adult vaccinations. Why?” Smith asked Arwady at the beginning of aldermanic questioning during Thursday’s meeting.
Arwady told aldermen that New York has “done even more” than Chicago by way of implementing vaccination requirements. “That has been true in employer settings and has also been true in some of the gathering spaces, etcetera” Arwady said.
Public health officials are actively talking with restaurants, small businesses and the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection about a vaccination — or negative test requirement — in “high-risk settings where masks have to come off” during surges in COVID-19 cases, Arwady said.
“That’s not a decision that’s been made at this point, but it is one of the things that we have seen help move that needle across the country and around the world,” Arwady said, adding vaccine requirements have proven successful in cities one might not expect, including New Orleans.
During a news conference earlier this week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot shot down the idea of a New York-style vaccine mandate for employers.
“We will not see that in Chicago any time soon. And frankly [there’s] a question of whether or not that’s going to sustain when invariably will come judicial review,” Lightfoot told reporters, adding she is “encouraging employers of all types to make sure that they’re doing everything they can to maximize safety in their workplaces like we have done with the mandate of vaccine.”
The mayor said she is “heartened” by Chicago restaurants, bars and sports stadiums that are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entry. “The surest tool that we know to maximize safety is for people to get vaccinated,” Lightfoot said. “We’re going to continue to drive home that message.”
Smith acknowledged the vaccine requirement was difficult for New York’s restaurant industry but said her experience as a tourist in the country’s biggest city felt safer than the time she spent in Detroit, where she said people were not wearing masks.
“How it felt as a tourist to be able to go into a restaurant and show your vaccine card and feel that you could sit down and have a meal easily was incredible,” Smith said, adding she felt that safety in the theaters too.
La Spata pushed further, asking “when we’re going to see vaccine requirements and new rules put in place for more public spaces…When are we going to go from contemplation to implementation? What do you need to see as our commissioner?”
Arwady said she was looking forward to hearing aldermen’s positions on the possible vaccine mandate for high-risk public settings but that “if this is something that we do, I want to do it in partnership as much as we can.”
“I want to stay open…we don’t want, God forbid, us to say people have to eat outside in January again,” Arwady said.
Chicago is home to “a lot of small businesses” that would be affected by a vaccination requirement and “it would be a real change for” them, Arwady said. “If we do this, I want to do this kind of in partnership as much as we can with them.”
Arwady said she is looking at a vaccine mandate that would be effective during surges in COVID-19 cases rather than a mandate that lasts “forever.”
La Spata said he shared Smith’s sentiments about New York’s mandate. “I’m going to New York for the holidays, and I really look forward to eating in restaurants that have a vaccine requirement because it sets my heart at ease,” La Spata said.
La Spata also shouted out two prominent businesses in his ward — Cole’s Bar in Logan Square and Dorian’s cocktail bar in Wicker Park — that “know that customers appreciate a vaccine requirement” that makes customers “feel more comfortable taking a mask down.”
The city’s top doctor said she thinks there is no longer an access issue for Chicagoans who have not yet been vaccinated. “We are the only city that…will bring a vaccine to your house, you know what I mean?”
The issue is more “a lot of misinformation” paired with distrust in the public health department, government and medical professionals, Arwady said.