Katie Honan, THE CITY
Thousands of private and public sector employees can’t work because of a vaccine mandate, but for the city’s sports and nightlife celebs, it’s game on.
New York City’s labor unions railed against a new carve out officially announced Thursday that lets athletes on local teams play unvaccinated — even as hundreds of city employees still can’t get back to work without the shot.
Mayor Eric Adams said Thursday at a press conference held at Citi Field that the change would “level the playing field” for athletes like Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who has been unable to play home games because he’s unvaccinated.
By allowing home players and artistic performers, including musicians and DJs, to work, it would boost the entire economy, the mayor said.
“We’re doing it because the city has to function,” Adams said. “We’re leading the entire country for the most part in unemployment.”
But it only extends to performers and athletes, leaving out every other public and private employee who lost their job because they didn’t get the jab. More than 1,400 city employees lost their jobs for remaining unvaccinated.
“If the rules are going to be suspended, particularly for people with influence, then the UFT and other city unions are ready to discuss how exceptions could be applied to city workers,” a statement released by the United Federation of Teachers said.
The union wants the Adams administration to set up negotiations on allowing unvaccinated educators to return to work.
Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch, who represents tens of thousnads of officers, in an emailed statement pointed to a double-standard for celebrities versus “the cops who are protecting our city in the middle of a crime crisis.”
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams on Thursday said in a statement that she was “worried about the increasingly ambiguous messages” to New Yorkers with the change.
“I have serious concerns about the process, rationale and inequity in today’s decision to exempt professional athletes and performers from the city’s private employee vaccine requirement when over 1,400 city government workers, many of whom served bravely on the frontlines during this pandemic, were fired from their jobs for not getting vaccinated,” she wrote.
‘It’s Pretty Sickening’
Private business owners also saw the athlete and performer exemption as hypocritical.
“What the mayor did today, it’s pretty sickening,” said Mary Josephine Generoso, who openly defied the vaccine mandate at the Bay Ridge pastry shop she owns with her husband, Rocco. They never fired anyone at Pasticceria Rocco on Fourth Avenue for not being vaccinated, but she said she felt the most sympathy for city workers who lost jobs.
“They were working through the pandemic, they gave up their livelihoods to be sidestepped by a mayor who decided that baseball players and Kyrie Irving are more important than the people who served the city,” she said.
“If I gave Mayor Adams $1.5 million, maybe he would have exempted Rocco’s,” she joked, referring to the donation Mets owner Steve Cohen made to the mayor’s campaign.
It’s unclear how many Mets and Yankees players are unvaccinated; representatives for both teams declined to give specifics, citing a collective-bargaining agreement with the players union.
Sandy Alderson, the general manager of the Mets, said a “minority” of the team’s 40-player roster were unvaccinated, later clarifying that it was less than 50% who hadn’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
Randy Levine, the president of the Yankees, said just a “few” of his team’s players had not received the shot.
Whether the players would be able to play in The Bronx and Queens had been a looming question as Irving has been benched in Brooklyn all season. As recently as Tuesday, Adams said he would not bend the rules for professional athletes — but his mind went to the opposite field just a day later.
Records show City Hall officials were lobbied on behalf of the Brooklyn Nets by The Parkside Group and former City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who launched his own lobbying firm, CoJo Strategies LLC after his term ended in December.
City Conflicts of Interest Board rules bar Johnson from lobbying the City Council for a year, but he is allowed to try to sway the mayor.
Adams and his team said the decision was based on the city’s economic recovery and health considerations. The mayor also denied that he was swayed by any lobbying to change the rule.
“I was not lobbied, I was speaking with multiple teams in the city as I do as a mayor all the time,” he said. “I heard all signs and I made the final determination. This is not based on lobbying coming in.”
The mayoral executive order announcing the change cited a “competitive advantage” that visiting teams had against the city’s home teams: Under the previous policy, unvaccinated players on visiting teams could play while players on home teams who hadn’t gotten the shot were sidelined.
Adams said the move supports the estimated $35 billion nightlife industry, and allows star players to play in front of their home crowd.
Ariel Palitz, the city’s so-called nightlife mayor, said after Thursday’s news conference that there wasn’t any data that showed a negative economic impact from requiring performers to be vaccinated. But she conceded a loosening of rules would ultimately help theaters, clubs, bars and similar venues.
“Any obstacle in doing business and being able to operate and manage and being able to receive business makes a difficult situation already complicated,” Palitz, the senior executive director of the NYC Office of Nightlife, told THE CITY.
“Any lifting of any mandate is going to help improve the ease of doing business, every little thing that we had to do to stop the spread was difficult for operators and businesses that operate a social economy.”
A spokesperson for the mayor said in an email that the economic boost from lifting the mandate was “intuitive” but did not provide any data.
A Legal Opening?
Jerold Levine, a lawyer who focuses on civil service cases in and around the city, said the new edict could give employees who don’t want the vaccine a better chance to challenge the mandate in court.
“My mother always told me when you bring Chanukah gifts for one kid you have to bring for everyone,” he said. “It’s the same when you start playing favorites in government.”
Workers still required to be vaccinated could argue “disparate treatment,” he added, noting that would force the Adams administration to detail why athletes and entertainers are being treated differently than cops, firefighters and other city workers.
Meanwhile, thousands of city workers who have applied for religious or medical exemptions could still lose their jobs. The city was reviewing up to 4,800 applications last month, THE CITY reported. The mayors office didn’t respond Thursday to requests for an update on that process.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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