By Katie Lannan
State House News Service
DEC. 20, 2021…..Patrons and staff at indoor spaces in Boston — including restaurants, bars, nightclubs, fitness facilities and entertainment venues — will need to show proof they are vaccinated against COVID-19 starting next month, under a policy Mayor Michelle Wu announced Monday that marks a major shift from current practice in the city.
Wu, who also tightened the vaccine policy for city employees, was joined for her announcement by municipal officials from Salem, Somerville and Brookline. Wu’s office said those communities, along with Arlington and Cambridge, are also working to advance their own vaccine requirements.
“This region requires Boston to take major steps and for us all to work together as a community amongst communities,” Brookline Select Board member Raul Fernandez said.
Wu’s announcement comes five days after the Boston Public Health Commission announced the city’s first confirmed cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19, in three young adults over the age of 18 who were not vaccinatd and experienced mild disease without needing to be hospitalized.
“This step will help increase our vaccination numbers, which we know is the best way to keep our community safe and thriving,” Wu said. “Although Boston’s vaccination rates have been high, we continue to see serious disparities by race and by age, allowing omicron and other new variants to spread in our communities. Vaccines are the most powerful tool in fighting this pandemic, once again, and they’re the most powerful tool to allow us to recover as a city and to truly be together.”
BPHC Executive Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said the number of COVID-19 cases in Boston has increased almost 90 percent compared to two weeks ago, with the city now averaging 369 new cases a day. She said hospital resources are “stretched thin” and that an estimated two-thirds of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in the city are unvaccinated.
Ojikutu, who issued the order establishing the proof-of-vaccine policy projected that the city’s case numbers will “rise significantly” in January based on the omicron variant’s transmissibility.
Under Boston’s policy for indoor dining, fitness and entertainment establishments, dubbed the B Together initiative, workers and patrons age 12 and up will be required to show proof of at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting Jan. 15.
Proof of full vaccination — acceptable forms include the CDC vaccination card, a photo of the card, “any official immunization record or digital image from a pharmacy or health care provider, or on any COVID-19 vaccine verification app” — will be required for those 12 and up as of Feb. 15.
For children age 5-11, the youngest age group for which COVID-19 shots are currently authorized, proof of a first dose will be required as of March 1, with full vaccination required starting the first day of May.
In August, Acting Mayor Kim Janey imposed a rule requiring the city’s 18,000 workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing for COVID-19. Wu said Monday that the city will drop the testing option “along the same timeline” as the new proof-of-vaccination requirement, with a first dose by Jan. 15 and second shot a month later.
Boston officials said the city plans to create its own proof-of-vaccination app, modeled after the Key to NYC app in New York City. Wu said she has been in touch with New York officials, where a similar vaccine requirement has been in place for months.
“Indoor vaccine mandates and mandates in general increase vaccination rates,” Ojikutu said. “After New York City implemented its indoor vaccination mandate, known as the Key to New York City program, citywide vaccinations increased by 9 percent in just one month, and the number of doses administered has risen steadily since the implementation.”
Ojikutu had to raise her voice during her remarks to be heard over protesters who arrived at City Hall while she was speaking. The group chanted, used whistles and at one point sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner” as officials described the new policy and their reasoning behind implementing it.
“Welcome to the people’s building,” Wu told the crowd of shouting demonstrators. “I just want to emphasize, there is nothing more American than coming together to ensure that we are taking care of each other, that each and every one of our community members is safe, is healthy and has access to the future and opportunities they deserve.”
A group called Boston First Responders United, which opposes vaccine mandates, criticized Wu’s policy ahead of her announcement, issuing what it described as “a call to action to our brothers and sisters in all law enforcement unions.”
“We especially remind our fellow members of law enforcement that civil rights and worker’s rights cannot be suspended, abridged, or revoked in America,” the group said in a statement, which also said any ongoing contract negotiations should be suspended.
Wu said Boston officials are “in conversations with all of our city unions to proceed along all the processes that are required.” She said more than 90 percent of the city’s workforce is fully vaccinated and that she is “confident that that number will continue to grow as we host on-site clinics in partnership with each of our departments.”
Sen. Will Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat whose district includes parts of Boston, was on hand for Wu’s press conference, as was City Councilor Lydia Edwards, a candidate for an open state Senate seat. On Twitter, House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat, called the vaccine-proof requirement “a bold and necessary step for many of us to feel safe when going out and dining out in Boston.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl, meanwhile, called the policies “clear violations of the civil rights of anyone who lives in, works in, or travels to the city” and said they “will make it even more difficult for Boston’s economy to recover from the pandemic.”
Diehl’s campaign also distributed a photo of him inside Boston City Hall, saying it was “taken this morning during the Boston First Responders’ Rally.”
The Boston Public Health Commission order — which says it will remain in effect until the executive director rescinds it — calls for “all reasonable efforts” to be made “to secure voluntary compliance,” including outreach, education and written warnings. It also allows for fines of $300 per violation “and orders of the BPHC to cease and desist.”
Christopher Carlozzi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, called it unfortunate that “private businesses are being placed in the unenviable position of having to enforce another government health directive.”
“City officials should take every step imaginable to ensure consumers know this is a city policy, and are aware business owners and their workers are simply being forced to abide by these latest rules,” he said.
Boston’s planned outreach and support efforts for businesses include a series of webinars and what Wu’s office described as “a weeks-long campaign to educate residents and businesses about the new policy, utilizing city outreach workers and inspectional services.”
Temple Gill of the Huntington Theatre Company, an organization that requires vaccines for its staff and artists and has been checking its patrons for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, said the new city policy “means that arts organizations don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of these decisions alone.”
According to the mayor’s office, 68 percent of Boston residents were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 14, and 79 percent had received at least one dose.