The countdown is on for all 35,000 San Francisco city employees, including police officers, firefighters, and Muni operators, to get vaccinated in the upcoming weeks or face potential termination.
But The City still has skeptics to convince.
“Our position has always been against ‘vaccinate or terminate.’ We feel it’s too harsh,” said Ken Lomba, president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. “We will have a small percentage of deputy sheriffs and city employees that will take it all the way to termination.”
In June, San Francisco officials announced city employees must get shots once a vaccine receives full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. On Monday the Pfizer vaccine received approval, and now workers at adult day care centers, residential care facilities, and dental offices, as well as home health aides and pharmacists, are required to get vaccinated.
Health experts say vaccine mandates are helping tame the delta variant surge.
“I think it’s needed, and it’s been working out from my perspective very well,” Peter Chin-Hong, professor in the UCSF Health Division of Infectious Diseases, said. “It’s the nudge that some people need.”
Yet even among those directly charged with protecting San Franciscans, some are resisting the vaccine.
“There are still some staff members who are not comfortable with the vaccine, which isn’t surprising. This trend mirrors the difference in opinion in our population as a whole,” San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto said. “I feel confident in the COVID-19 vaccines, but I recognize other people may not.”
About 79% of San Francisco Sheriff’s Department employees are fully vaccinated, according to Nancy Hayden Crowley, the department’s director of communications. But some association members still fear the vaccine was rushed and would like to see a frequent testing option as an alternative to a vaccine, Lomba said. He warned the city could find itself short-staffed of officers who leave due to the mandates.
Medical experts find the pushback highly concerning, especially among those whose job it is to serve the public.
“The risk is not only individual, but it’s the risk for the person you’re serving,” said Chin-Hong. “You are interacting and serving people; this is aligned with that mission. You don’t want to harm them.”
Cases of COVID-19 have dipped in the weeks following a reinstated indoor mask mandate and decisions by some business owners to require proof of vaccination. On Aug. 12, city officials followed suit, requiring indoor businesses such as restaurants, bars, clubs, and gyms to check for proof of full vaccination among patrons 12 and over.
Now, about 77% of city employees and 72% of San Franciscans are fully vaccinated, according to a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office. Communications Director Jeff Cretan said The City is exploring expanding the mandates, including at large outdoor gatherings and upcoming events.
The Sheriff’s Association isn’t the only group opposed to such measures. The Black Employee Alliance and Coalition Against Anti-Blackness also pushed back.
“In addition to this being a form of insensitive, bully-leadership, it is egregious and irresponsible,” the group said in an email this week. “The City’s leaders can do better than forcing people to get vaccinated or be terminated from employment, and we are taking action to let them know that we will not accept these mandates quietly.”
Dante King, a founder of the Black Employee Alliance, said health and religious concerns are not the only reasons holding some back from getting vaccinated.
“A lot of Black people do not trust the government and the health care systems we have in this country. This country has a history of horror,” he said, referring to examples such as the Tuskegee Study, a 1932 medically unethical syphilis experiment that involved hundreds of Black men living in the rural south.
On the other hand, health mandates appear to be having a positive effect. Ben Bleiman, president of the SF Bar Owner Alliance and owner of two local bars, said the majority of his patrons have cooperated with the vaccine requirements—barring a rare public freakout. And it’s proving successful.
“We noticed a lot of breakthrough infections among staff members at alarming rates,” before proof of vaccines were required to enter bars, Bleiman said. “That’s gone way down from what I’m hearing.”
But that doesn’t mean the process has been easy. For small shop owners and restaurants, shoring up extra labor to check vaccination cards can be difficult.
The problem has been compounded by a recent overall slowdown in business. Venues like the Boom Boom Room in the Fillmore are back in business, but unable to open for as many nights a week as prior to the pandemic.
“The staffing issue is a big one,” said owner Zander Andreas, adding that most customers comply with the vaccine and mask policies. “I always have two doormen on the weekends. One person will check IDs and vaccine cards, and the other person will check tickets. It is an extra step, but most people are used to pulling out their ID already.”
Moreover, city officials don’t appear to be cracking down hard on businesses to standardize or regulate vaccine requirements, several business owners told the Examiner.
That doesn’t concern health experts like Chin-Hong too much, even as delta cases remain high. “Like everything in life, it’s about risk reduction, not a zero-risk environment,” he said. “But in the big scheme of things, many people in the Bay Area are complying.”