Kyrie Irving, Aaron Judge, and the Politics of Inertia
Defend the private sector vaccine mandate on the merits - or don't
New York baseball fans awoke to the reality this week that the Kyrie Irving saga, once the torment of mere Brooklyn Nets fans, could soon replicate itself in their world.
Aaron Judge, the star Yankee outfielder, won’t confirm he is vaccinated and his unwillingness to answer this question means he likely never got the jab. The New York Mets probably have multiple unvaccinated players, given that less than 85 percent of their team was vaccinated last year. The exact status of all the stars and also-rans on both teams is not known. Considering the reality of vaccination in America and across the world, there are probably players choosing to not take the Pfizer, Moderna, or J&J vaccines to protect themselves against Covid.
The reason, of course, this matters at all is because New York City has enacted the most sweeping vaccine mandate for private sector employees in America. No other large city has followed suit. In the five boroughs, all employees “who perform in-person work or interact with the public in the course of business” must show proof of vaccination against Covid. There are a few exceptions to this mandate, like medical or religious accommodations. Visitors from other states are exempt. Hence, Irving, an employee of the Nets in Brooklyn, cannot play games at the Barclays Center but his unvaccinated opponents can run up and down the court all they want. In addition to private sector workers, all public sector employees must be vaccinated and Mayor Eric Adams already fired more than 1,400 city workers who refused to get the full series of the vaccine.
Nets fans have been griping for months about the city barring Irving from home games. NBA higher-ups wish the whole controversy would go away. Adams, understandably, won’t alter a city policy for one individual. And while the mayor has expressed new openness to ending the private sector mandate, he won’t simply do it to appease Yankees and Mets brass, no matter that Randy Levine himself is a former deputy mayor.
Among a certain school of pundits on the left, in sports media and beyond, the reaction to all of this is simple: get the damn shot. Michael Wilbon of ESPN went on a tirade against Irving, who has made it clear he will probably never be vaccinated, and his star teammate Kevin Durant after the latter called out Adams directly. “You wanna call out somebody, call out your teammate. Tell him to get a shot! He’s got plenty of them cause he couldn’t have gone to grade school in metropolitan New York without vaccines!” Wilbon declared to much approval.
One challenge of the private sector mandate is that Adams recently rescinded New York City’s vaccine passport, following other big cities in the wake of falling Covid cases. For the last few months, the five boroughs had, inarguably, the toughest restrictions on indoor public life anywhere in America. Adults and children, ages 5 and up, needed to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, museums, and most other indoor facilities. After-school programs required a vaccine passport too. The policy’s sweep was notable because many children have yet to get vaccinated and some countries are recommending against it entirely. The Pfizer vaccine was found to have limited effectiveness for children ages 5-11.
Some business leaders and restaurant owners have stated they were relieved that Adams ended the vaccine passport, given that checking CDC cards was a job left to overworked waitstaff. Fights with patrons occasionally broke out. Vaccinated New Yorkers may hate the idea of unvaccinated tourists pouring into their restaurants and museums, but the city won’t effectively recover until tourism reaches levels not seen since 2019. New York desperately needs people to shop and dine here from other cities and countries. Removing the vaccine requirements doesn’t guarantee a comeback, but it does remove at least one barrier.
But that’s not the real point anymore—it’s that basketball fans can’t understand why Irving is allowed to enter the arena and watch his team but not play. This is just what Irving did recently, even striding into the Nets locker room and later getting fined for it. What is the science behind the unvaccinated Irving sitting in the stands to watch unvaccinated players from the 76ers or Heat shoot baskets while he’s barred from play? Well, there is none.
The pundit class’s animus towards the mercurial Irving—and the resentment that will start to build if Judge proves to be a vaccine holdout—masks what has been, from the outset, a refusal to intellectually engage with an unprecedented public health policy. It has become, as Ethan Strauss has pointed out, a reflexive hatred of asking any and all questions. Mandating a vaccine to hold a job in the public or private sector would have been unthinkable before the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t until recently that public schools in New York began requiring children to receive traditional, non-Covid vaccines to attend class. (Previously, religious exemptions had always been allowed.) Before 2020, the idea of firing a unionized, public sector worker for lacking a vaccine would’ve been viewed, on the left at least, as explicitly anti-labor. Into 2021, the ACLU was still holding to a once durable civil libertarian position: making a healthcare choice the condition of entering public life was a red line we shouldn’t cross.
Put all of that aside, for a moment, and consider the mandates themselves. As you can probably guess, I am wary of them—but I concede, as a temporary measure, they worked. New York City boosted its vaccination rate to an impressive degree and weathered the omicron wave with relatively few hospitalizations and deaths, given how dramatically high the case count rose in December and January. Vaccines save lives. I am vaccinated and boosted and encourage everyone who can to do so. Vaccines keep people out of hospitals, especially the elderly and those with co-morbidities. America could have reduced its death count dramatically if those over the age of 65 were uniformly vaccinated and boosted. To date, the vast majority of death occurs in this age group.
When the omicron variant outcompeted prior Covid variants, it did so because it was so highly transmissible. While public health officials, in early 2021, argued vaccination could prevent both hospitalizations and transmissions, omicron proved Covid could circulate with ease among vaccinated populations. New York’s case count exploded despite its high vaccination rate. This was an argument for vaccination, not against, but it did dispense with the lie promoted by politicians and the public health establishment that Covid had morphed into a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” In New York, with a large majority of residents vaccinated, the opposite was true by the time Christmas came around.
New York’s public health officials never, at any point, indicated what their goals for vaccination were or what metrics would be tied to the easing of restrictions. Either they didn’t have any or they wanted to hide them from the public. The lack of metrics was concerning—as I had written last year—because all Covid restrictions in the pre-vaccine era were tied, explicitly, to case counts or hospitalizations. Unlike New York, Boston under Mayor Michelle Wu offered a clear rationale for the city’s vaccine mandates and removed them as soon as certain thresholds were reached.
The uncomfortable question must be asked: how high must New York City’s vaccination rate be before the private sector mandate is lifted? There are a subset of people who believe it should exist forever. Others simply want a higher rate. How much higher can it go? An astounding 87 percent of adults in the five boroughs are fully vaccinated. Almost 97 percent have one dose. For medical reasons, this drop off may persist—a very small number of people have allergic reactions to Covid vaccines—and it will be impossible to get 100 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Some people, like Irving, will choose to never get the vaccine. Others will want to but will be told by medical professionals and CDC guidelines they can’t complete the series following an allergic reaction. Those fulminating against Irving never want to reckon with these facts.
If you are vaccinated, you are protected in most cases from serious hospitalization. You are not protected from infection. And your vaccinated friend or family member can still give you Covid. Omicron tore through vaccinated New York City. Future variants are probably going to operate in a similar fashion.
If the mandates didn’t exist, why should Aaron Judge and Kyrie Irving get vaccinated in 2022? Both are 29, world-class athletes who have already contracted Covid. Their odds of getting greatly ill and dying from the virus are incredibly low, and these are clearly odds they are willing to tolerate. Last year, the highly vaccinated Yankees had multiple Covid outbreaks. This was well before omicron reached New York.
The real impetus for keeping the current private sector mandate in place is political, not scientific, like so many decisions that are made in regard to the pandemic these days. Eric Adams can’t repeal the mandate right now because he just fired more than 1,400 city workers. He can’t do it because numerous private sector employers have probably had to fire workers who refused the vaccine. More time, politically, must pass. How much time? Baseball’s opening day, in early April, offers a deadline, but Adams can’t be seen—in his world, at least—catering merely to baseball players. He must stand up for this policy until some arbitrary, non-scientific day when it makes sense for his advisers to let it go. This predicament would not have existed if New York’s Health Department had been honest about its policies and bound all of them to obvious metrics, like the number of ICU beds available, the positivity rate, or the sheer number of cases. Instead, under both Bill de Blasio and Adams, indefinite mandates with no historical precedent were thrust onto the public. These policies have created the bizarre spectacle of a professional basketball player who can enter an arena to watch his team but not suit up to play. Let the pundits consider what’s been wrought.