Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s requirement that all city workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 is a critical step in making her employees, her city and the entire region safer. The vaccine is the most effective way to slow the pandemic, and with cases and hospitalizations spiking across Tampa Bay, and with Florida fueling a new national surge, it is time for government and industry alike to move more assertively to protect public health.
Castor announced Wednesday that the city’s 4,700 workers must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30, making Tampa the first city in the bay area to require staff vaccinations. The mayor estimated that 40 percent of the city’s workforce was vaccinated, and while acknowledging concerns over personal choice, Castor said it was unfair to have unvaccinated employees in the workplace with the highly contagious delta variant on the rise. “We have all done so much to combat this pandemic and keep our city up and running,” she said in an email to employees. “But the unprecedented spread of this virus demands that we do more to protect ourselves, each other, and the community.”
Castor was right to recognize the city’s public obligation to become more of the solution and less of the problem. And it couldn’t come soon enough. Florida’s pandemic is getting deadlier, with cases, hospitalizations and fatalities rising steadily through most of August. Floridians are also testing positive at higher rates, prompting school districts in Hillsborough County and other large, Florida metros to reintroduce mask mandates.
Castor’s move also comes as police, fire and emergency service agencies across the region report troubling low vaccination rates among first responders. This is inexcusable; any profession sworn to serve and protect should not as a matter of course be exposing the public to danger. While Castor said the details need to be negotiated with the city’s three unions representing fire fighters, police and blue-collar workers, the unions need to recognize their obligations to act responsibly and their own self-interest in protecting the health of those within their ranks.
Employers in both the public and private sectors are right to shift into higher gear. Vaccinations have plateaued. The practice of offering gift cards, bonuses and other incentives for holdout employees to get the jab has seemingly run its course. Yet Florida remains seriously at risk. While Florida’s 60-plus population has the highest vaccination rate of any age group in the state, more than 200,000 older adults are only partially vaccinated, and more than 900,000 Floridians over 60 have yet to receive their first shot. On the opposite end of the age scale, thousands of Florida children are isolated from school due to positive COVID tests, and tens of thousands of students and staff are in protective quarantine for coming into contact with the virus. And children under 12 are not eligible for vaccines, so it’s up to everyone else to get vaccinated to help protect them.
The Food and Drug Administration’s full approval Monday of the Pfizer vaccine has cleared the way for employers — from mayors and corporate CEO’s to the U.S. military — to mandate vaccination requirements. Shortly after the Pfizer approval was announced, Disney reached a deal Monday with a union coalition that will require union employees as well as non-union and salaried workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Amtrak, Citigroup, Google, Microsoft and United Airlines, among many other companies, have announced similar requirements. And some companies, such as Delta Air Lines, are stopping short of requiring vaccines but imposing a range of new restrictions, such as mandating masks in the workplace or adding surcharges to remain on a company’s health care plan.
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The surge of infections across the country and rising worries over the delta variant are changing policies and perceptions, and new polls show a majority of Americans support mandates for masks and vaccines throughout the public sphere. In short, there’s growing impatience for indulging the unvaccinated who are crowding our hospitals and putting our children at risk. In an absence of state leadership, it’s good to see mayors, school districts and business leaders in Florida stepping up. This crisis won’t resolve itself.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.