Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Imagine you live in one of the richest countries on the planet, with easy access to a vaccine that is free, plentiful, and highly effective against a deadly disease currently rampaging across the world. What do you do? For millions of Americans, the answer still appears to be “don’t get vaccinated” – despite the risk that poses to their lives and the lives of those around them.
But that may not last. President Joe Biden channeled “angry dad vibes” on Thursday as he announced a new vaccination mandate that is set to affect around 100 million Americans. The plan is stark and simple: any employers with more than 100 employees must ensure their workforce is either vaccinated or tested weekly for infection. Fail to comply, and they could face fines of up to $14,000 per violation.
“We can and we will turn the tide of COVID-19,” the President said in a televised address at the White House. “It’ll take a lot of hard work and it’s going to take some time. Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated even though the vaccine is safe, effective, and free.”
That frustration with the dwindling vaccination rates is what some see as the impetus for the announcement. Indeed, despite the President’s aim to get at least 70 percent of the country at least partially vaccinated by July 4, it took nearly a month longer than expected to reach that target – and infection rates are surging once again.
“My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: what more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see? We’ve made vaccinations free, safe, and convenient,” Biden said.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin and your refusal has cost all of us. So please, do the right thing.”
About two-thirds of the American workforce is set to be affected by the new vaccine mandate, including healthcare workers in settings that receive Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement, federal employees and contractors, and teachers and school staff. This latter move in particular highlights the growing disparity between the federal government and politically opposite state-level authorities, many of whom have instituted high-profile bans on mask mandates in schools.
“The bottom line: we’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers,” announced Biden. “We’re going to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the share of the workforce that is vaccinated in businesses all across America.”
The announcement was met with fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who recently tried to impose restrictions on private businesses requiring proof of COVID vaccination, lambasted the new move, saying that he didn’t “support mandates of any kind … The one thing that I’m concerned about is them trying to force mandates on individuals and businesses.” Meanwhile, Greg Abbott, the Texas governor who signed into law the most extreme anti-abortion law in the US this month, said a vaccine mandate would infringe on “Texans’ right to choose”.
Possibly the most incendiary criticism came from Henry McMaster, governor of South Carolina. Biden’s vaccine mandate, he stated via Twitter, was a “[declaration of] war against capitalism” that had “empowered our enemies abroad.”
“Rest assured, we will fight them to the gates of hell to protect the liberty and livelihood of every South Carolinian,” he wrote. South Carolina currently has the second-highest levels of coronavirus infections in the country and one of the lowest rates of vaccine uptake.
Politicians aren’t the only ones promising to resist the new mandate: a recent poll showed that nearly three-quarters of unvaccinated workers would rather quit their job if a mandate were introduced than get the vaccine (although, as some have pointed out, this may not be how things play out in practice.)
Despite this opposition – and the threats from GOP governors of legal action – the President insisted the country would not be stopped from “turning the corner” in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These pandemic politics … are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die,” he said. “If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way.”
Historically, courts have upheld the government's constitutional powers to protect the public by issuing public health measures, whether those measures have been popular or not.
However, many polls and surveys have suggested that the majority of Americans are for vaccine mandates. An Economist/YouGov survey in August showed that 60 percent of Americans supported vaccine mandates for frontline workers and members of Congress, while a COVID States Project survey had the figure at 64 percent.