In recent weeks, the United States has broken record after record of COVID-19 cases due to the spread of the highly infectious and vaccine resistant Omicron variant. This has led the federal government, private businesses, and localities to mandate COVID vaccines to reduce infection rates and hospitalizations. According to the New York Times, nationwide cases have gone from 140,000 on Dec. 1 to over 800,000 on January 14. Despite this emergency, these mandates have encountered obstacles in federal courts.
DC, however, has recently implemented several strict mandates. It has seen more success than the federal government, but its attempt to mandate vaccines for students has sparked a political fight.
In September 2021, the Biden Administration announced a private-sector vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees. The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) would have been responsible for the implementation and enforcement of this mandate. OSHA used emergency powers to expedite the rule, which would take many more months to craft and approve under normal processes.
However, on Jan. 13, just three days after the mandate went into effect, the Supreme Court struck it down. The conservative majority on the Court ruled 6-3 that OSHA did not have the authority to regulate public health and could therefore not implement its emergency rule. However, the Court let a Biden Administration mandate stand for healthcare workers whose employers receive funding from Medicaid.
The ruling was a setback for Biden and his efforts at containing the virus. After the Court struck down the OSHA rule, his administration called upon employers and states to mandate vaccines without a federal requirement. Biden told employers to “do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and economy” by imposing mandates. The Supreme Court and lower courts have been more friendly to private and local government mandates.
With no federal mandate, the US is left with a variety of mandates or lack thereof that differs from state to state or even city to city. Many states prohibit recipients of government funding from imposing vaccine mandates on its workers. Many also extend these bans to private businesses seeking to mandate vaccines for its workers or patrons. These states include the large states of Texas and Florida, which have been ravaged by the pandemic and are currently experiencing surges.
Locally, DC has recently implemented several stringent vaccine mandates. Although DC had previously avoided significant COVID outbreaks, the Omicron variant and holiday travel led to a massive surge at the end of 2021. High vaccination rates have kept deaths down compared to earlier waves. There are indications, however, that the wave is on the decline. At the end of December, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that anyone over the age of 12 would have to show proof of vaccination at most businesses, excluding retail, grocery stores, and houses of worship. The mandate first went into effect Jan. 15, with residents being required to show proof of one dose of the vaccine and two doses after Feb. 15. The citywide mask mandate was also restored after being dropped around Thanksgiving.
DC has also made attempts to increase vaccination rates among students. In November, a rule went into effect requiring vaccination for student athletes and school personnel without a testing option. The DC Council then passed a law requiring vaccination for all students, including those attending charter and private schools. However, this law will not go into effect until the 2022-23 school year. The latter mandate drew the ire of Congressional Republicans. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) announced that he would introduce a bill to overturn the Council law. “The school board has no right to force you to get your 5-year old vaccinated,” Cruz said. Under the DC Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress has the authority to review and change any DC law if it so desires. Most Congressional Republicans and staffers rely on DC businesses when the House or Senate are in session and many are either unvaccinated or refuse to say.