October 19, 2021

Cortland officials and locals respond in own ways to vaccine mandates

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Sandro Mironti, owner of New York Bagel in Cortland, works Thursday. As COVID-19 vaccine mandates are being implemented at federal and state levels, Cortland officials and employers are deciding what is best for them to do within what the law allows.

Sandro Mironti quietly worked Thursday afternoon in his store, New York Bagel, in Cortland.

Mironti and the one other employee in the store were both unmasked — but both have been vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

In fact, all of his employees have been vaccinated.

“I think right now, we need to take every precaution possible,” Mironti said.

Around the country, businesses like Google, Tyson Foods and Microsoft have required all employees working in person to be vaccinated as COVID cases rise again because of the Delta variant.

Last week, President Joe Biden ordered federal employees to receive the vaccine or follow masking and weekly testing guidelines. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo similarly called on all state employees to be vaccinated by Labor Day or face similar testing requirements.

The Delta variant of COVID-19 is the most transmissible variant of COVID-19. While vaccinated people can still get it — and spread it — they’re less likely to catch it, less likely to become seriously ill, and less likely to die from it.

What that looks like locally, between May 1 and July 30, is this: 27% of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Tompkins County — 84 people — have been among fully vaccinated people, reports the Tompkins County Health Department. However, that is only 0.1% of the 67,000 vaccinated people in Tompkins, nearly 70% of the county’s population.

More so, while the vaccine can help prevent serious illness or death for the vaccinated, it can also reduce the spread, reports the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads across the country, Cortland officials, employers and legal experts understand they can mandate that workers get vaccinated, but are still weighing whether they should.

SCHOOL SAFETY

When it comes to the safety of students and staff at SUNY Cortland, the expectations are clear.

“There is the expectation that students and staff will have to be vaccinated” for the fall semester, said President Erik Bitterbaum.

No vaccine, no in-person attendance.

“If you want to take time off, that is your choice,” he said.

SUNY announced earlier this year that all students attending in-person classes — unless they have religious or medical exemptions — will have to be fully vaccinated. Employees, all 1,200 of them, will also be required to become vaccinated.

This decision comes following Cuomo’s announcement in July that all state employees will need to be vaccinated or get tested weekly beginning Sept. 6.

About 800 of the college’s staff have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Bitterbaum said.

Vaccinated or not, Bitterbaum issued a statement this week ordering all students, staff and visitors to wear a mask indoors on campus.

This change comes following the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance based on the transmissibility of the Delta variant, he said.

Other changes may happen but what they are, Bitterbaum couldn’t say.

“It’s every 24 hours that something changes,” He said. “We keep an eye for what’s happening throughout the nation and state.”

LEGAL RIGHTS

Schools and businesses have the legal right to require employees to be vaccinated or follow masking mandates, said Robert Spitzer, a distinguished service professor in the political science department at SUNY Cortland.

“The short answer is businesses have a wide latitude to require employees to be vaccinated,” he said.

Spitzer gave a similar example with open-carry firearm laws in Southern states. In those instances, people may be able to openly carry weapons, but businesses can prevent patrons from bringing weapons inside a store.

However, the degree to which a business can implement such mandates like that for the COVID-19 vaccine differs if they are a private business or part of a public entity.

A public employer — such as SUNY Cortland — must abide by state and local guidelines, Spitzer said. An example he presented was with First Amendment rights, which a public university must uphold to a higher level than a private university.

In terms of legal benefits from mandating vaccinations, Spitzer said it could prevent lawsuits should, for example, a sick employee spread the virus to coworkers or customers.

The question then becomes: Do businesses have the right to fire employees who are unwilling to become vaccinated and are not willing to wear masks? In a public health crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the law will side with government rulings aimed at protecting the public’s health, Spitzer said. “That is a power of government that extends years back to protect against various diseases,” he This said. power comes from when vaccines for illness were not readily available and governments had to implement laws to safeguard people from spreading disease, or from dying.

With cases rising locally and nationwide, Sptizer said vaccination rates will likely rise as receiving the vaccine has become a norm. Businesses will be depending on it.

“At this point, given the facts of vaccination and the evidence that the vaccination is the best defense, I think businesses are beginning to understand the viability of what is at stake,” Spitzer said.

CONSIDERATIONS

Employees of the city of Cortland are encouraged to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but city officials have yet to decide whether to adopt a vaccine mandate, Mayor Brian Tobin said.

“We are discussing our options,” he said.

Part of the decision will be based upon the fact that different departments have different numbers of employees who have varying levels of close interaction with each other and the public, Tobin said. That may mean tailoring vaccine mandates at department-specific levels.

The city made shifts at different departments to adjust to the pandemic — from spreading firefighters across three stations to limiting the number of in-person transactions at City Hall.

Precautions may change when the SUNY Cortland students return at the end of the month, Tobin said. “What we’re doing now may work fine, but what we’re doing in September may be different.”

Personally, Tobin said he believes people should wear masks indoors with the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, but that’s not a policy.

Tobin himself contracted the virus in December and though he did not have any symptoms, he had to isolate for 14 days in his home.

Enacting a policy mandating vaccines would be brought before the Common Council for discussion, Tobin said.

“The numbers will go up, but we need to be smart and be safe,” Tobin said. “The harsh reality is COVID will not disappear in the foreseeable future,” but hopefully it can get to the point where it’s as treatable and regular as the common cold or flu.

‘TAKING EVERY PRECAUTION POSSIBLE’

For Mironti, requiring his staff be vaccinated is for the greater good of the community, he said.

“I think right now, we need to take every precaution possible,” he said. “We need to make sure we do everything we can to curb this problem. If we don’t take the initiative — to do that, then you’re part of the problem.”

As of Thursday, Mironti said he’s had all seven employees who work during the summer vaccinated.

When more SUNY Cortland students join his staff at the end of the month, they too will be required to get vaccinated and Mironti said he’s willing to be flexible so they can get their shots, including giving them time off.

“If not, then they have to wear masks when they’re on the clock here with us, to protect our customers, to protect our other employees,” he said.

Mironti said he doesn’t worry about pushback from unvaccinated employees who don’t want to wear masks; they’ve had to wear them for most of the past 17 months.

He doesn’t worry about the students’ return, either, because the city has seen people coming in throughout the spring and summer for baseball tournaments at Gutchess Lumber Sports Complex in Cortlandville. When not playing games, players and their families are getting a bite to eat on Main Street or exploring the city.

“All of those people, they’re susceptible to something happening,” he said.

As for the students, “we’re hoping that they take charge of their own health,” Mironti said. “Everybody has to do their part.”