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A level playing field, for everyone

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“Masks are still required, even if you’re vaccinated.”

While that injunction still greets the city’s subway and bus riders, fewer are taking what is still an essential precaution.

And, following Mayor Eric Adams’ pronouncement that athletes and entertainers would be spared from the city’s vaccine mandates, who could blame them? At the very least, the dispensation suggests that we’ve beat back the worst of the virus. 

The exemption, the mayor said, would help revitalize New York’s economy. “We’re doing it because the city has to function,” he said.

It also would put athletes “on a level playing field,” the mayor said, since the vaccine mandates obliged only city residents to be inoculated and that put New York’s professional sports teams—the Brooklyn Nets in particular, and soon the Yankees and Mets—at a disadvantage since star players—the Nets’ Kyrie Irving and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge among them—are either unvaccinated or have declined to say either way.

What the exemption has also done, then, is excuse Irving, Judge and others from meeting their responsibilities as residents and citizens, and compromised their membership in a community by granting them a status that sets them much further apart that the vast majority of people they ostensibly represent.

That cannot be excused, not even for a deep run into the playoffs or a World Series title. Too much is at stake.

That some among us, athletes or not, believe they are somehow immune, or in possession of some miracle antibody or palliative, or otherwise justified in shunning vaccines that have, without question, saved and continue to save the lives of potentially millions of people, is not merely naive and wrong-headed but, given the extensive evidence, thoughtless.

The exemption has also carved further fissures between those city employees who did what was required of them and got the jab—either for the greater good or because they did not want to lose their jobs—and the city that employs them. 

Municipal unions—the United Federation of Teachers, the Police Benevolent Association and the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association prominent among them—chastised the mayor’s decision, citing it as proof of the arbitrary nature of the vax mandates, which, while enacted by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, Adams has generally supported and upheld.

More than 1,400 municipal employees lost their jobs in February for not having met the mandates’ conditions, directives that for months pit government officials against municipal workers but also, in too many cases and more insidiously, resident against resident. 

Adams said at the time that he had no plans at this time to rehire those workers. Given his carve-out for athletes and others, he could yet be obliged to reconsider that stance. 

Even if he and the city prevail in any new round of lawsuits, the mayor has staked his standing on a policy that benefits just a very few but risks, by extension, yet another miscalculation when it comes to what is still a pandemic, and just as caseloads—albeit tied to a less virulent strain—are again climbing in New York City and statewide (as Adams himself acknowledged Tuesday evening in a joint statement with U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler that asked Congress to “urgently pass additional funding to address COVID-19 related challenges.”)

Responses to the virus’ spread from leaders up and down the food chain—from de Blasio, from Andrew Cuomo, from Donald Trump—initially and as illnesses and deaths waxed and waned and waxed again were marked by distinct failures to govern for the greater good and to acknowledge through policy choices that the thing was an indiscriminate killer.

After two years of mask-wearing, jabs, boosts, attendant precautions and also the ideological divisions, the urge to get back to a semblance of normalcy—to a crowded bar on a Friday evening, to baseball on a warm spring day, even to the camaraderie only the office can offer—is palpable and even imperative.

But it should be done cautiously, on equal terms, on a level playing field and, as the PBA’s Patrick Lynch put it in referfing to this members, without, by implication, consigning some to second-class citizenry.

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