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In the coming weeks and months, all eligible individuals will be required to show proof that they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to be allowed inside restaurants, gyms, museums, and other indoor venues in Boston.
Along with other local communities, Mayor Michelle Wu announced Monday that Boston is phasing in a vaccine requirement this winter for certain indoor venues, amid spiking cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
The requirement will apply to indoor dining at restaurants, including bars and nightclubs; indoor fitness centers; and indoor recreational spaces, like theaters, concert venues, and sports arenas.
The full list of covered entities can be viewed here.
The first phase — requiring employees and patrons ages 12 and up to show they’ve gotten at least one dose of a vaccine — takes effect on Jan. 15. They will subsequently be required to show they’ve received at least two doses on Feb. 15.
Boston will also require children as young as 5 to show they’ve gotten at least one dose to enter those indoor spaces by March 1. And by May 1, children aged 5 to 12 will be required to show proof of full vaccination as well.
The policy does not require booster shots, though the city’s website notes that the Boston Public Health Commission “may modify this provision in the future.”
The order Monday follows similar policies in other major American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. And it was announced in conjunction with other neighboring Massachusetts communities — including Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Salem, Somerville — that are advancing mirroring vaccine requirements for their local indoor venues.
Last week, Boston and several local colleges reported their first cases of the quickly spreading omicron variant. And while nearly 80 percent of Boston residents are at least partially vaccinated, the current surge in cases has strained the area’s already under-staffed hospitals. According to state data, 95 percent of metro Boston hospital beds are currently occupied.
Noting that the small minority of unvaccinated residents make up the “vast majority of hospitalizations,” Wu said the intent of the phased-in approach is to increase vaccination rates, in addition to promoting worker safety.
“Our essential workers have been on the frontlines of fighting this pandemic for more than 650 days, and it’s time for Boston to follow the science and public health data to ease their burden,” Wu said during a press conference Monday.
Given the transmissibility of the omicron variant, BPHC Executive Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said the city is also expecting that its case numbers “will rise significantly in January.”
“The sheer number of cases that we anticipate will have a severe impact on our health care system,” Ojikutu said, adding that research shows that the vaccines and boosters are highly effective against preventing severe outcomes from COVID-19, including the omicron variant.
City officials say accepted forms of vaccination proof include an official Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination card, a digital image of one’s CDC card or other immunization record, or a COVID vaccine verification app, including one that the City of Boston plans to release.
Businesses will also be required to post a printed notice, available in multiple languages, informing visitors of the policy. And according to Wu, the city’s Inspectional Services Department will run checks to ensure compliance with the order.
“Once it gets to the point that it is part of the culture, part of the standard expectation, there’s much less direct challenge in compliance,” she said.
City officials are also encouraging residents to call 311 if they see a business that is not adhering to the policy. Businesses that do not enforce the requirement can be hit with a $300 fine for each violation, after a first-time warning.
The order was announced Monday near a raucous group of protesters in Boston City Hall, who chanted “Shame on Wu” and attempted to drown out the local Democratic officials speaking at the press conference by singing the national anthem.
“Welcome to the people’s building,” Wu said, acknowledging the protesters.
“I just want to emphasize there is nothing more American than coming together to ensure that we are taking care of each other, that each and every one of our community members is safe, is healthy, and has access to the future and the opportunities they deserve,” she added.
Boston officials said they did a “tremendous amount” of outreach ahead of moving forward with the requirement, one of several pandemic-era policies that has become increasingly politically polarized.
“Part of this, from the City of Boston’s perspective, is doing this collectively and ensuring that we’re taking the burden off of our local organizations and businesses who are having to make decisions on their own and face the consequences of having a patchwork out there,” Wu said. “Consistency, clarity, and shifting the culture will help with that.”
Some local businesses had expressed concerns that a vaccination requirement would impose another burden on restaurants, amid a host of other challenges, including a labor shortage and difficulties enforcing the city’s indoor mask mandate.
However, Wu described the proof of vaccination check as “just one more interaction that is already happening” between customers and staff.
“It would be a quick glance at an app or a card or a photo of your card,” she said.
Unlike many of those policies, the forthcoming citywide requirement will not have an alternative allowing unvaccinated individuals to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test instead.
City officials encourage businesses to engage customers who say they cannot be vaccinated due to a medical condition “in a cooperative dialogue to see if a reasonable accommodation is possible,” though it is not required.
“Covered businesses must require proof of vaccination,” the city’s website bluntly reiterates.
According to the order, the requirement applies to all patrons, full- or part-time employees, interns, volunteers, and on-site contractors.
However, there are some exceptions.
The order says that “individuals entering for a quick and limited purpose” — such as using the bathroom, placing or picking up an order, or making a delivery or a repair — can enter a covered entity if they wear a mask at all times (the city’s indoor mask mandate also remains in effect, regardless of vaccination status).
The city’s website even notes that businesses can briefly allow individuals inside to recharge their cell phone so they can show a digital image of their proof of vaccination. It also gives businesses “discretion” to let in a vaccinated minor who cannot show proof of vaccination “if the minor or an accompanying adult can offer a reasonable explanation.”
There are also exemptions for visiting performers and athletes who aren’t vaccinated, as well as any unvaccinated individuals who are accompanying them. The order says they would also be required to wear a mask “at all times.” However, the city’s mask mandate exempts athletes from wearing masks while competing.
The requirement also does not apply to K-12 schools, child care programs, senior centers, community centers, or spaces at colleges and universities that already require students and staff to be vaccinated.
Wu also announced Monday that all City of Boston workers must be vaccinated on the same timeline as the requirement for indoor venues, removing an exemption that allowed unvaccinated employees to submit to weekly testing. More than 90 percent of city workers are already vaccinated, and Wu said that the city wanted to encourage more to follow suit.
“We need to take every available action to protect our cities, residents, businesses, and institutions,” she said.
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