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New York mayor partly lifts vaccine mandates for professional athletes

The policy shift comes as the NBA readies for playoffs and the MLB's Opening Day is just two weeks away.
New York Mayor Eric Adams speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington on Jan. 20, 2022.
New York Mayor Eric Adams speaks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting in Washington on Jan. 20.Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

New York Mayor Eric Adams partly lifted a vaccination mandate Thursday that had kept some top athletes from playing in the city — while keeping the requirement for countless other workers.

Ballplayers and other performers got the green light to apply their skills in New York City even if they haven't been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Adams said "the timing is exactly where it needs to be" to peel back some Covid requirements.

"Covid is a battle. Our economy is a battle," he told reporters at Citi Field in Queens, home of the New York Mets. "We need to recover our city from crime, from economic devastation, from uncertainty."

Adams acknowledged his decision would not be popular among many of his constituents.

"I know and you know: 8.8 million people in this city, 30 million opinions. I got it," he said.

New York's vaccination mandates apply to those who do "in-person work or interact with the public in the course of business."

Adams said it was unfair to athletes and other performers because of a loophole that allowed others not based in New York City to play in the five boroughs even if they're not vaccinated.

"We were treating our performers differently because they lived and played for home teams?" Adams said. "It’s not acceptable.”

But Dr. Jay Varma, the director of the Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response at Weill Cornell Medicine, said Adams’ carve-out threatens public confidence in policy-makers.

"It's a definitely a good day to be an athlete who doesn't believe in vaccination," Varma said. "Unfortunately, I don't think it's a good day for the city."

Varma, a former senior adviser for public health for the mayor’s office, said Covid policies have to craft "responsibilities for the population, that you're not above the rules."

Of inconsistent policy, he added: "When you see it in your face and it's so striking, it breeds cynicism in society."

The highest-profile beneficiary of the change would be Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, who has been barred from suiting up when his team plays at Barclays Center.

Irving has said he’s "choosing what’s best" for him by refusing shots that have been a valuable tool in slowing the spread of Covid-19 and lessening the impact on those who are infected.

The NBA playoffs are to begin in less than three weeks.

The Nets were expected to be contenders for the NBA title but have been hampered by injuries and Irving's absence. Still, Brooklyn is in the playoff picture and would benefit from having him full time.

Major League Baseball's Opening Day is set for April 7, with games that include the New York Yankees playing host to their rivals, the Boston Red Sox.

The Yankees and the Mets both have players who have refused to say whether they've been vaccinated, most notably Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge.

Unions for the basketball and baseball players issued a joint statement saying an overwhelming majority of their members have been vaccinated.

The groups praised Adams "for listening to the concerns of our New York teams, players, fans and communities and for leveling the playing field for home teams and their opponents." 

Yankees President Randy Levine and Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said only a handful of their players are not vaccinated.

Levine snapped at a reporter when he was pressed about how many Yankees had refused shots, saying a collective bargaining agreement with players does not allow him to call out unvaccinated individuals.

"I just told you 'few.' That’s what I said to you. You’re going to have to live with 'few,'" said Levine, whose franchise has won more world titles than any other club but none since 2009. "And I can’t tell you 'individuals' because that’s what the basic agreement says." 

Before his announcement, Adams had already been facing blowback from workers who are not famous, highly paid performers yet want vaccination mandates lifted.

New York City's largest police union said those still under vaccination requirements are being treated as "second-class citizens."

"If the mandate isn’t necessary for famous people, then it’s not necessary for the cops who are protecting our city in the middle of a crime crisis," Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said. "They don’t deserve to be treated like second-class citizens now."

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, too, questioned the equity of the shift, given that "1,400 city government workers, many of whom served bravely on the frontlines during this pandemic, were fired from their jobs for not getting vaccinated."

"I’m worried about the increasingly ambiguous messages that are being sent to New Yorkers about public health during this continuing pandemic," Adams, who is not related to the mayor, said in a statement. "This exemption sends the wrong message that higher-paid workers and celebrities are being valued as more important than our devoted civil servants, which I reject."

Asked whether any city workers who previously refused vaccination would get their jobs back, Mayor Adams said no: "At this time, we’re not entertaining it."