NYC has decided vaccines matter more than tourism

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NYC has decided vaccines matter more than tourism
New York City's vaccine mandate prioritizes health over tourism. picture alliance/Getty Images
  • NYC requiring proof of vaccination for most indoor activities says a lot about the pandemic economy.
  • Bill de Blasio isn't just prioritizing health but preserving mask-free indoors and staving off a lockdown.
  • His decision implies the US could turn into a two-track economy of vaccinated and unvaccinated areas.

New York City just made a game-changing move for its economy - and maybe the country's.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday that workers and people in the city would need to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination for indoor activities at restaurants, gyms, and performance venues. The mandate, known as the Key to NYC Pass, will begin on August 16 and will be enforced starting September 13, when students are back at school and workers return to offices, de Blasio said.

The mandate comes as the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus surges across the US. As of July 20, the variant accounted for 83% of new sequenced COVID-19 cases in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

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The surge led the CDC to reinstate its guidance on masking indoors in high-risk areas - including New York - and revived fears of the kinds of lockdowns seen in 2020. De Blasio did not insist on a mask mandate for the city, and now he's gone a step further to preserve a mask-free, not-locked-down economy, even if it means sacrificing some much-needed dollars from unvaccinated tourists.

"Masks have value, unquestionably," de Blasio said. "But masks are not going at the root of the problem. Vaccination is."

The Key to NYC Pass is de Blasio's latest attempt to increase the city's vaccination rate, hoping it will convince New Yorkers that they can't enjoy all the city's offerings and activities without being vaccinated.

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"This will encourage a lot more vaccination - we've seen it already," de Blasio said while unveiling the mandate. "If you want to participate in our society fully, you've got to get vaccinated." That means tourists from states like Florida or Texas, which have lower vaccination rates and thousands of new infections, will have to vax up or skip that trip to Broadway.

Living in a 2-track economy

New York will be the first US city to introduce an indoor vaccine mandate.

De Blasio is banking on the idea that a healthier population will result in a stronger economy. The epicenter of the outbreak during the spring of 2020, New York has made a big comeback. But it hasn't fully recovered.

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Central business districts like midtown still aren't quite as bustling as they used to be, plenty of wealthy people have permanently moved out, and tourism may not fully recover until 2025. A vaccine mandate could deter unvaccinated out-of-state visitors at a time when the city's economy badly needs revenue from tourism. New York welcomed 66 million visitors in 2019 but just 22 million in 2020, The New York Times reported, citing figures from NYC & Company.

But if the mandate pushes more people to get vaccinated, New York may return more quickly to something closer to a prepandemic normal. Highly vaccinated metro areas have had a slight acceleration in job postings over the past four weeks compared with less vaccinated ones, Jed Kolko, Indeed's chief economist, tweeted on Tuesday.

New York could also set the stage for more US cities to impose their own vaccine mandates. The US could then take on a two-track economy: highly vaccinated areas with mandates, and poorly vaccinated regions without. This divide has already begun to form in some states, but vaccine mandates in certain places could sharpen it.

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All 50 states have reported rising vaccination rates as the Delta variant has surged. That's good news, as it signals a path toward a more cohesively vaccinated country and a light at the end of the tunnel.

But given the already stark geographical divides in vaccination rates, it's likely that unification may come later rather than sooner. Until then, absent President Joe Biden mandating vaccination on a federal level, the country is increasingly sorting into a patchwork of vaxed and unvaxed economies.

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