President Biden on Thursday unveiled a series of steps to combat the newly surging pandemic, including the announcement of a forthcoming federal rule that all businesses with 100 or more employees have to ensure that every worker is either vaccinated for COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing for the coronavirus.
“We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” Biden conceded, as the delta variant of the coronavirus has caused cases, hospitalizations and deaths to rise across the country. But, he added: “We can and we will turn the tide on COVID-19.”
Speaking from the White House, Biden said the new emergency rule for private sector employers, which will be issued by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would apply to 80 million workers.
In total, he said the six-pronged strategy he unveiled Thursday would affect some 100 million Americans.
Biden also announced that businesses meeting the 100-worker threshold must give employees paid time off to get themselves or family members vaccinated.
Republicans decry the employer mandate
Many Republicans quickly condemned Biden’s proposed rule as federal overreach.
The Republican National Committee on Thursday night announced its plan to sue the Biden administration.
“Forcing main street to vax or pay a fine will not only crush an economy he’s put on life support—it’s flat-out un-American,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., wrote on Twitter. “To Joe Biden, force is more important than freedom. Americans won’t stand for it.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement: “It is not the government’s role to dictate to private businesses what to do. Once again President Biden is demonstrating his complete disregard for individual freedoms and states’ rights. As long as I am governor, there will be no government vaccine mandates in Oklahoma.”
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll last week found that 50% of U.S. adults support employers requiring vaccination to return to in-person work, while 44% do not. The poll did not ask about government mandates for businesses.
The vaccine mandate rule coming from the federal government, as opposed to being individually enforced, will shield many employers from facing the brunt of potential blowback, said employment lawyer Brett Coburn of firm Alston & Bird.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of employers who chafe at this for a variety of reasons, but some employers I think may welcome it,” he said. “It kind of takes it out of their hands to some extent to say, ‘Sorry, OSHA said we have to do this and we have to follow what OSHA tells us.’
“The CDC gives us guidelines. OSHA gives us rules. And that’s a really important distinction,” Coburn said, noting that he has seen a growing number of companies in the last month move toward vaccine requirements.
Vaccine requirements for federal workers
Among the other steps, Biden also announced that federal workers and contractors will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, eliminating an option laid out in July for unvaccinated employees to be regularly tested instead.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said federal workers would have about 75 days to become fully vaccinated, once Biden signed an executive order later Thursday. She said there would be limited exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
Some federal agencies will require proof of vaccination while others will accept attestations, Psaki said. Workers who fail to comply with the requirement will be counseled by their human resources departments, and then will face “progressive disciplinary action,” she said.
Also announced Thursday, Biden said the Transportation Security Administration would now double the fines for travelers who refuse to wear masks, as public blowups in airports and aboard trains over mask mandates have become a frequent experience for employees of the travel industry.
“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” Biden said. “And by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television towards flight attendants and others doing their jobs is wrong. It’s ugly.”
Similar steps for health workers and teachers
Biden announced that 17 million health care workers at hospitals and other health care settings like dialysis clinics and home health agencies that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding will have to be vaccinated.
There will be similar requirements for teachers and staff at the Head Start early education program and other federally funded educational settings, such as schools on military bases.
The government also plans to boost access to home tests for COVID-19, buying nearly $2 billion in tests for a variety of settings ranging from shelters to food banks. Walmart, Amazon and Kroger will sell home tests at cost for the next three months, according to the White House plan.
The Defense Department plans to send more teams to states where hospitals have reached capacity with COVID patients, and the government also will ship more monoclonal antibody treatments.
“Our patience is running thin”
Biden delivered stern words to America’s unvaccinated adults.
“Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated,” he said, adding that “a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner.”
About a quarter of U.S. adults have not gotten a vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see? We’ve made vaccinations free, safe and convenient,” Biden said. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us. So please do the right thing.”
The speech comes as the United States has already recorded more than 40 million confirmed cases of the virus, with some 650,000 American lives lost as a result, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have spiked recently, due in large part to the delta variant, which experts say appears to be twice as transmissible as the highly contagious original strain. The vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths in the current surge are among the unvaccinated.
Biden has overseen ramped-up efforts to combat the virus through vaccinations and mask usage, but vaccine hesitancy — particularly among white Republicans — and the politicization of masks have hindered the nation in the fight to stamp out the virus.
In his Thursday remarks, Biden also had sharp words for those lawmakers who he said trafficked in politicizing a public health matter.
“These pandemic politics, as I refer to them, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die,” he said. “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”