December 6, 2021
Errol Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. As we reported before the break, all private sector employees in the city will be required to be vaccinated by December 27th. And children between the ages of five to 11 will need to be vaccinated in order to take part in some indoor activities, including dining. This is all part of an effort by the de Blasio administration to get ahead of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Mayor de Blasio joins us now from the Blue Room inside City Hall to talk about all of this and much more. Good evening, Mr. Mayor.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good evening, Errol. How are you doing tonight?
Louis: Just fine, thank you. I have questions, as do many New Yorkers about the new vaccine mandate you’re talking about. Would this apply to employees who do not interface with the public? Sort of, back-of-the-house employees so to speak.
Mayor: Yeah, this is across the board. We’ve talked about an exception for remote work, because it’s not the same concept, obviously, as people being in a workplace. And if it’s a sole proprietor or someone with a single – you know, they themselves are the only employee, that’s obviously different as well. But for the – basically, everything else, where people go to work in a workspace, that’s what it applies to. And it’s a Health Commissioner’s order. It’s based on the fact that it’s not just Omicron – that’s a big deal, you’re right. And it looks like it’s going to spread very fast. On top of that, the colder months where we know COVID spreads more and creates more of a danger. On top that, the holiday gatherings, which we know every single time causes cases numbers to go up. These are three things happening all at once and our Health Commissioner believes fundamentally we need to be very aggressive and preemptive now. And that’s why we made this decision.
Louis: Let me ask about the formation of the policy. You said the Health Commissioner – did he or you consult with or seek any guidance from national public health authorities – I am thinking of the Centers for Disease Control – about whether or not this would be a good idea.
Mayor: Oh, that’s been an ongoing conversation for months, literally, across the federal government, with academic researchers and experts around the world. You know, between Dr. Chokshi, at the Health Department; Dr. Katz at Health + Hospitals; Dr. Varma, my senior advisor – they are constantly in touch with other health care leaders around the country. And very much the consensus is to go as far as possible with mandates because they have proven to be so effective. And that nothing else strategically compares to vaccinations, in terms of impact. And look, we’re seeing right now. Unfortunately, in Germany, a very advanced nation, they are now turning now to restrictions and even elements of shutdowns, because their vaccination numbers lagged. We certainly seen some really troubling things in other parts of our country where vaccination is low. It’s pretty stark the difference between highly vaccinated place, like New York City, and the places that didn’t focus on it. So, I think the health care community very consistency wants the most muscular vaccinate mandates as possible.
Louis: And I take it you spoke with your corporation counsel in advance –
Mayor: Many times –
Louis: About the legality of ordering all of these businesses to do this?
Mayor: Yeah, this was a series of conversations over several weeks, looking at the different things we can do. Once – even before Omicron, we were worried about the cold-weather months and the holiday gatherings. And we saw before we heard the word Omicron, we saw the troubling trendlines in Europe. And we started talking about, what else do we have in the arsenal that could make an impact. And again, everyone agrees, the goal is more, and more, and more vaccination. So, we looked at a series of tools, starting with the private sector employees mandate. But we also, as you noted, focused on the youngest New Yorkers. We’ve got to get those vaccinated numbers up. And that Key to the City mandate, the entertainment, the fitness, dining, that’s for December 14th. The extracurricular activities for the youngest kids five to 11, that’s December 14th. We need to get parents really moving quick, because as these challenges, this, kind of, triple threat – Omicron, winter, and holiday gatherings – this is coming on fast. So, we want to get those youth vaccination numbers up. We want to get seniors especially, but everyone with those boosters. And we want to extend to anyone who has gotten the first dose. And we think the mandates really help us on that level.
Louis: I keep seeing this reaction to the Omicron variant, but when asked I think your folks and many other public health authorities have said that there hasn’t been sufficient research to demonstrate whether or not this new variant is more lethal, more transmissible, or, in any way, functionally different than from the Delta variant when it comes to what we have to do in order to stay safe. Are they telling you something that’s not being conveyed to the public?
Mayor: I think that they’ve been very consistent publicly about the fact that don’t have all the facts, but we have some trendlines here that are pretty powerful, meaning we have every reason to believe that, right now, it’s more transmissible. And if you simply took Delta, which is, of course, the dominant strain right now, and you just played out the next few months with Delta, there will be a lot of reasons to do the things we are already doing anyway. But if you throw in another variant that’s more transmissible – and you’ve got to strategically work from that assumption right now, because, you know, the body of evidence so far certainly indicates that’s the case. We can’t wait too long for every possible. We’ve got to work strategically from the worst-case scenario. If it’s just more transmissible – it’s not more dangerous than Delta, it’s not less responsive to vaccines than Delta, but it is more transmissible, that’s a real problem, because the more caseloads go up, enviably, that means more hospitalizations. For some people, any COVID is very dangerous because of preexisting conditions or age. You know, we know enough now to say, this is now absolutely another factor in our strategic thinking.
Louis: The President of the Partnership for New York City, that's the very large corporations and law firms, said she was completely blindsided by today's announcement. The restaurant industry is saying that tourists may not be able to meet the requirement, that they don't have access. I mean, they're just here visiting as we've asked them to do. They're asking for a delay in implementation. And, as you know, many retailers make virtually all of their annual profits over these next few weeks of the Christmas season. Did you give any consideration to these economic issues?
Mayor: Well, on the restaurants, nothing's changing, because we have these rules in place already with the Key to NYC. And, obviously, the restaurants, thank God, in many cases, have been thriving, including as more and more tourists come in from around the country, around the world. So, you know, the restaurant industry I think is in a strong place. The larger corporations we've heard from a lot of CEOs that they believe in vaccination and they are trying to get as far as they can themselves, but certainly appreciate when the government takes the lead. And it's not them, you know, telling their own people what to do, but it's from a higher authority. So, I think those pieces look really clear in terms of retail. Look, we knew it would take time to put together the rules and the protocols, that's going to be December 15th, and then get everyone ready. We're recognizing, of course, this is a crucial time of year. So, this takes – you know, this takes full effect on December 27th in time enough to make a real impact for health and safety. But also, we clearly recognize that this is a crucial time of year for so many people's livelihood.
Louis: Okay. So, now, what will you – what would you say to New Yorkers who suspect that this is a mostly political gesture designed to position you as being tough on COVID as you prepare to run for Governor?
Mayor: No, look at what I've been doing for months and months and months. I said from the very beginning, we would climb the ladder. And when we did, it worked. In the beginning, with the hospitals, the health care workers, then Department of Education – you remember, that was a big controversy. But I don't hear a lot of people complaining now. It worked. Our Department of Education employees being under a vaccine mandate has made schools incredibly safe. Then, we went on to the other public employees. We did the restaurant mandate and the Key to NYC. Every single step along the way has worked. And the challenge has now increased. So, it makes sense to climb the ladder even more. Listen to the health care community, Errol. We're getting tremendous support locally and nationally from the health care community saying, this is the kind of thing we actually need more of in the country. It's first in the nation, but I hope it will be emulated all over the country, because it's time to get even tougher to end the COVID era. If we don't get tougher on vaccination, we're going to have COVID with us for a lot longer.
Louis: Okay. President Biden has been trying to enforce vaccine mandates on companies with more than 100 employees. It's been delayed, because it's facing legal challenges. Do you expect the City to resolve your inevitable legal challenges in the next 24 days?
Mayor: Sure. I mean, we've been down this road a lot. Boy, I can't count the number of times that I've been sued and the City's been sued on these issues already, but we've won every single time. And that speaks volumes. Look, when it's a Health Commissioner's order, what we have found is State and federal courts really fundamentally respect the right of health care authorities to recognize the extent of a problem and act accordingly. And so, every one of those mandates I talked about we've done previously has been ratified by the courts consistently. We are doing something different from the –
Louis: But, Mr. Mayor, there's a timing question there, right? I mean the City's position, your position could prove out in court eventually. But there'll almost certainly be a request – an immediate request for a stay, and you'll have to bring in evidence, and there’ll have to be an argument, and the clock is ticking. And, you know, at best it would be in effect for four days – the last four days of your mayoralty. More realistically, it won't be resolved until after your mayoralty has ended.
Mayor: That's not been our experience, Errol. There's been attempts at stays, at TRO’s – you know, temporary restraining orders, at different points along the way, they've been overwhelmingly rejected by the courts. In a few cases, we had them for a few days. But, really, if you look at all the court cases around COVID mandates here in this city, on vaccine mandates, it's been extraordinarily consistent. We have not been ever stopped from doing what we plan to do. It's really, really clear. And unlike the federal government – we respect – I respect the Biden administration. I think they've done extraordinarily positive and helpful things in fighting COVID, but we did not choose a cutoff for the size of business. We thought morally, practically, legally, across the board, it made sense to do the same thing for everyone. And I think that's going to be very important in our legal strength as we go forward.
Louis: Okay. Stand by Mr. Mayor. We're going to take a short break. I've got more to talk about with Mayor de Blasio. We'll get to that in just a minute. Stay with us.
Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. I’m, once again, joined by Mayor de Blasio, who is in the Blue Room. And Mr. Mayor, I wanted to ask you one more vaccine mandate question. On a related note, you issued a mandate that would apply to private schools, parochial schools, religious institutions. That too is likely to be subject to some kind of a challenge. Have you been in touch with the leaders of those institutions?
Mayor: Yeah. I mean, Errol, I've spoken to religious leaders, and religious school leaders, and heard their concerns. We had had this conversation over weeks and weeks originally. We thought about this way back. We decided it made sense to, you know, make sure the other mandates were effective first. But as this situation with COVID has gotten more and more difficult, we decided it was time for that. And, remember, earlier last week we did the mandate for child care employees who had not been previously covered. That was over 100,000 employees, over 50,000-then of the non-public school employees. This new mandate reaches – I think, ultimately, it's going to have certainly the effect, in my view, of having over 100,000 more vaccinations come out of it. You know, these are big pieces, but as I keep talking about climbing that ladder, yeah, we had the conversation. There was concern. We thought about it. We tested it. We came back, we said it's time. And I believe it's very, very defensible in court, because it's the same exact concept. It's within the Health Commissioner's purview to take this action for any and all schools.
Louis: There was a relatively narrower, granular question about how to deal with, say, five and six-year-olds, who need to prove that they have been vaccinated. Is the recommendation that parents carry around the vaccine cards with them?
Mayor: I think that makes sense. You know, I was a public school parent, that's what I do – keep the information, you know, the app, or the card, whatever makes sense to use. But, yeah, because this is going to be especially – look, we talked earlier about Omicron, and the good scenario where the worst thing is it's just more transmissible but not more dangerous – and that's Omicron, we don't know if there's another variant coming behind it. So, we've got to get ready for all sorts of situations. And kids being vaccinated is a defense. Vaccines have worked every single time. There's always rumors, are they going to be less effective? In fact, they've been incredibly –
Louis: Yeah – no, it's not an argument about the vaccine. I'm just saying – I mean, the app – or, at least, the official City app, as far as I can tell – I was fussing with it myself and I was looking at what people were saying on social media – apparently, it's really one per phone. So, unless your five-year-old has a phone, you're going to have to figure out something other than the app as a way of proving that they're vaccinated.
Mayor: Well, certainly, carrying – you know, the good old-fashioned approach, carrying the card, is a great idea. Carrying a copy of the card – you know, whatever makes sense. I'll look at that issue around the app, if it's one per phone or if there's some other way we can allow multiple to be on the same phone so parents can have it for kids. I think that's a great question and we'll follow up on that.
Louis: Yes. Yes, those of us who are teenagers know that the phone's always cracked, or lost, or running out of power. That's just the way it goes.
Mayor: I've been there, Errol. I've been there.
Louis: There you go. Let me switch to the City's housing authority. The DOI – the Department of Investigation is looking into a question of whether the housing authority failed to unclog some chronically malfunctioning compactor shoots – these are the trash shoots. And there have been trash fires, a couple of them in the Mitchel Houses in the Bronx, one of which killed a six-year-old boy last month. Apparently, as of last month, NYCHA had a backlog of over 300 shoot repair requests, meaning this has been backing up. These shoots have been backing up and have been a real hazard for a long, long time. I was wondering if you had anything you could tell the public about that?
Mayor: Well, first of all, it's just horrible that this child was lost. And, as a parent, it's very painful for me to even think of – you know, how have we lost another child in our city? That's so awful to begin with. My understanding is that NYCHA has consistently tried to address these issues, the problem is that sometimes individuals do whatever they do with the shoot and then there's another problem that NYCHA has to come back and fix. But we need this investigation. I'm happy that this investigation is happening, because we need to know exactly what happened here. We need to get to the truth and we need to figure out what it tells us about anything that needs to be done differently, going forward.
Louis: And, you know – and, of course in recent days we saw that Vito Mustaciuolo and Gregory Russ, the top executives at NYCHA are the highest paid city employees, making over $400,000 – over $500,000, in the case of Mr. Mustaciuolo. And, Mr. Russ, of course, who never bothered to move to New York. This is still going to be an issue, even if you're Governor. How do we get better performance out of this organization and its leadership?
Mayor: Well, I want to tell you, I would not take this – this is a horrible situation that happened with this child, but we don't have the details and the facts, which is why I believe we need an investigation. I am not at all certain it's as simple as, you know, someone didn't do their job. I want to know all the facts and then we'll follow them where to take us in terms of any kind of consequences, policy changes, holding anyone accountable, etcetera. If you look at NYCHA overall, I truly believe this and I've been working on NYCHA issues for years and years, these two leaders have done more to actually fundamentally start to change things than any NYCHA leadership I've seen in my lifetime. I mean Greg Russ is considered one of the great of public housing leaders in the country. We came to an agreement with the federal government to bring him in. Vito Mustaciuolo is legendary as, you know, a hands-on, can-do public servant. They go constantly out to developments, fix problems, hands-on, direct. But they also, right now, in the process to the tune of tens of thousands of apartments of total rehabs of buildings, something we never saw before, using the RAD program, which was developed under President Obama, and it's working on a huge scale now in New York City. This is the first time a long time we've been able to say, we can actually envision a NYCHA where the building's more and more updated and made as good as the residents deserve. So, no, I think these are two leaders who've gotten a lot done. That's really the truth.
Louis: Alright, well, let's see if we can wrestle this one issue to the ground about whether or not there are hundreds of complaints about backed up trash shoots, because that's not – you know, that's not a federal capital issue. That's just a matter of making sure the buildings are safe and habitable, right?
Mayor: There's no question on any issue that might have a health and safety impact. And remember – you remember a lot of attention was on heat a few years ago and I'll point to Vito here who really drilled down on that issue. We saw a profound turnaround in the time that heat complaints were addressed, heat in the buildings was brought back on. We've brought in a lot of outside contractors, and experts, and new equipment. A lot was done to take us away from, I think, a much more, sort of, complacent approach that NYCHA used to have and make it, you know, active and modern and really responsive to residents. We’ve got a lot to do. I mean, these are – you know these buildings – a lot of them are buildings that have not gotten the care they deserve for decades and decades. But I do think, again, under Gregory Russ and Vito Mustaciuolo, you've seen some profound improvements of management and actual results for tenants. Now, it's using this RAD program to maximum, which I really believe in. It is not privatization. It is protecting a public asset, and fixing it, and making it livable for tenants. And now, the hope that in this next piece of legislation in the Congress – and Senator Schumer's been outstanding on this – that we could finally see the massive infusion of federal support that NYCHA’s deserved for decades. This could be – as strange as it may sound, on one level – this could be the golden moment to really turn NYCHA around on for the long term.
Louis: Okay. We will hope for the best and wait for some answers on the garbage shoots and other issues. Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about Rikers Island, that other troubled agency. The federal monitor says that the violence in city jails is the – it's said it's basically at the most – we've had the most dangerous year since the consent decree was entered. The number of stabbings and slashings in the first 10 months of this year, they say, was higher than the previous three years combined. I'm wondering, what's the answer to that? And does it dovetail it all with the final implementation of the vaccine mandate for the staff at Correction?
Mayor: I think we had a horrible and abhorrent situation during the COVID era where life inside our jails was really tough for everyone, harder than ever. I think emotions were running high. I think there was tremendous frustration. I think there was a lot of, you know, real human pain, because, you know, we lost Correction officers. It was a difficult environment for everyone and I think it is something we're finally working our way through and out of. On the vaccination front, you know, now, as of today, 83 percent of the uniformed force is vaccinated. Another nine percent has legitimate requests for reasonable accommodations that are being processed. So, that's 92 percent of the workforce fully accounted for at this moment. We also know a lot of people who even go on leave without pay do turn around and actually decide to get vaccinated and come back. That's happened with every agency. So, things are functioning. The thing that we've got to do more and more is, kind of, move past COVID, address some of these underlying issues. We’ve got a lot more to do, I'm the first to say that. But I’ve got to tell you, I believe that these things can be addressed, that some of the big reforms – getting off Rikers is number one. We need to get out there. We're well on the way to that. Ending solitary confinement, we're almost done with that. And a lot of other reforms to make it a more peaceful environment. They are moving. I think 2022 will be a year where a lot more can get done.
Louis: Okay. We will pick it up again next week. We've only got a couple more of these meetings. You're welcome to come down here, by the way. We've got people scrubbing and disinfecting this studio every single day and you are more than welcome to pop in one more time.
Mayor: Well, I'd like to do that. So, we'll make sure one of the last few times together will be live from NY1.
Louis: Very good. Thanks for that. We'll see you again next week.