By Garrett M. Graff / Special To The Washington Post
Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio, a cocktail bar with live jazz in downtown San Francisco, surely didn’t intend to be a national leader in public health.
But its announcement July 23 that proof of vaccination was required for all its staff, patrons and visiting musicians heralded a sea change that has occurred across the country over the past 10 days: America’s business owners have had enough of the coronavirus pandemic. Within days, the San Francisco Bar Alliance — with about 500 bar owners as members — embraced the move, too. “We’re a group that’s suffered so much the last 16 months,” the alliance’s founder Ben Bleiman told the San Jose Mercury News. “We’re just tired of it.”
And so it is that a pandemic that first saw the boldest actions taken at the lowest level — local restaurants and businesses — seems perhaps set for one of its final chapters to be written again by private businesses fed up with inaction by the federal government and the stubbornness of patrons, customers and workers who are risking the nation’s hard-won economic gains with their refusal to get vaccinated.
Sixteen months ago, when we still referred to the threat as the “novel coronavirus,” private businesses led us into shutdowns; long before a reluctant Trump administration was willing to admit how big and how long of a shock the nation was in for. Last spring, the cascading postponement and cancellation of events such as the NBA season and the South by Southwest Festival shocked people into taking seriously an event that President Trump was insisting would be minor, brief and magically disappear on its own. (“We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” he said one day before Rudy Gobert’s positive test at a Utah Jazz-Dallas Mavericks game led to the rapid evaporation of the basketball season.)
Today, a new president elected in part because of his predecessor’s shambolic management of the pandemic finds his actions constrained by the GOP’s new party dogma of dismissing a health crisis that has killed the equivalent of the entire population of Wyoming or Louisville; and just like last spring, it has fallen to private businesses to take the decisive and unequivocal actions that the federal government appears incapable of making.
With Mr. Tipple’s leading the way once more into the breach at Agincourt, one business after another has stepped forward to say “Enough,” culminating last week with giants such as Apple, Google, Walmart and Disney all announcing vaccine mandates for their employees. Employers — and increasingly frustrated vaccinated Americans — are desperate for some semblance of a return-to-the-office and resumption of “normal” commerce. But rising case levels from the delta variant are eroding hope that the nation’s soft-sell “carrot” approach to vaccinations will yield much more progress.
For seven months, vaccine distribution has relied first on reaching the eager, followed by a period that targeted the merely reluctant and the busy with state lotteries, giveaways and even beachside clinics to encourage anyone remotely interested in receiving the vaccine. That worked in many corners of the country; cases dropped quickly, and states reopened boldly and enthusiastically as vaccine rates rose through the spring and early summer. Then the plateau hit, with some 90 million Americans who could have received the vaccine still unvaccinated; many apparently for more partisan and political reasons than any real concern.
The nation finds itself stuck with about half the country vaccinated, a measure far short of the goal of 70 to 80 percent vaccination, and that glosses over even more extreme regional inequities. While the Northeast is hovering close to herd-immunity levels, with adult vaccination rates in the 70s and 80s, many Southern states sit at about half that. And as the school year approaches, the disparity among children ages 12 to 17 who have been vaccinated is even worse: My home state of Vermont just passed 70 percent, while some Southern states are still in the teens.
In those pockets of the unvaccinated, ICUs are filling up again, deaths are increasing, case counts are setting records and the active resistance among the unvaccinated is threatening the ability of the vaccinated across the nation to stay safe and resume daily life.
The federal government could roll out a national vaccine mandate more thoroughly, clearly and concretely, but it’s stymied by the unique policy paralysis that has become American politics in the age of the coronavirus. Even as the federal government has been clear that it won’t (or even can’t, politically) institute a national lockdown, Republican-led states that have shown little compunction about mandating government interference in health-care choices when it comes to abortion have suddenly embraced a hands-off-our-bodies approach for the coronavirus. States such as Texas have legislated and limited the ability of cities and municipalities to institute their own mask or vaccine mandates; a move driven by politics, not public health or science, that prioritizes the “right” of the unvaccinated over officials’ ability to take basic steps to slow the spread of the disease. As Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said in signing last week’s executive order barring any local mask mandates in Texas, “The path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”
Abbott’s ban, for instance, means that even as officials in the state capital of Austin and surrounding Travis County face a revived covid-19 threat, they can’t impose any mask or vaccine mandate at the local level.
Altogether, such bans have moved forward in almost a dozen states.
Overseas, national governments are leading the way; the “enough is enough,” get-tough trend began with French President Emmanuel Macron decreeing that being out in public will effectively require proof of vaccination or a steady stream of negative tests, a move Italy quickly followed. But here, the Biden administration has stopped well short of a national mandate, even as it’s moved forward with requiring federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated. And the messaging from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains messy; appearing to prioritize narrow scientific and medical precision seemingly without regard to political and social realities.
Instead, a global pandemic — and a national economic, social and public health crisis — once again finds itself pushed down to the most reluctant actors: Private businesses and local and state leaders, all of whom would prefer to be following clear guidance, instead find themselves forced to make up new rules in the face of federal inaction.
Employers and businesses have found that if they want leadership, they have to do it themselves. Scores of hospitals and health-care organizations, clearly angry and exhausted by the resurgent virus when brighter skies had once loomed ahead, instituted their own employee mandates last week and called on others to do the same, but the speed and breadth of the new mandates for employees and customers is clear even beyond the health-care field.
The music-blaring workout cult SoulCycle and tony Equinox gyms have announced that they’ll begin requiring proof of vaccination next month. Numerous colleges and universities — ranging from Yale, Johns Hopkins and Howard, as well as the entire California State University System — are beginning to roll out vaccine mandates for students, faculty and employees this fall; Michigan State is adding a mask requirement to at least its initial weeks of the fall semester. (The Washington Post itself announced an employee vaccine mandate last week too.)
In many cases, employers and business owners are stressing how difficult and fraught their new mandates will be; understanding all too well the raw politics and the culture war backdrop of their actions. It’s clearly not a position that most of these companies want to be in, but they’re being forced because the government won’t do it. Some of the businesses are frank about the backlash they expect to receive from patrons; a Dallas-area restaurant that is asking customers to wear masks again even announced a preemptive list of rude names and epithets that it could be called.
Indeed, whereas last year’s bold actions, like the NBA’s season shutdown and the closing of the neighborhood bar, seemed to grow out of a national spirit of unity — the sense that we were all in this crisis together and had a shared responsibility to our neighbors, colleagues and the most vulnerable — this summer’s actions by business owners and employers comes with a darker overtone: The recognition that we haven’t all been in this together.
Many of our neighbors, fellow citizens and co-workers have chosen to ignore the realities of medical science and public health and blazed onward with their lives, endangering others and themselves.
Faced with returning mask mandates, new cancellations or the scaling-back of in-person events, and a fall that might look as dark as last year’s, it’s clearly (and unfortunately) up to the nation’s businesses to show the public leadership our government remains unable to muster.
Perhaps, after everything, the one thing that can arrest the pandemic and force the unvaccinated to act is the one universally understood excuse: Sorry, my boss made me do it.
Garrett M. Graff is the author of several books, including “The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI” as well as, most recently, “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.”