Should Atlanta make its employees get vaccinated or tested? Mayoral hopefuls weigh in

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Mayoral candidates on whether to mandate vaccines for city workers

Mayor Bottoms hasn’t ruled out a vaccine mandate

Since the wide rollout of the coronavirus vaccine this year, a number of large cities across the country, including Chicago, Baltimore and Minneapolis, have given their public employees a choice: either get vaccinated or face regular COVID-19 testing.

The federal government, as well as several private businesses in metro Atlanta, have also implemented vaccine mandates.

But the city of Atlanta, so far, has not ordered any such mandate for its 8,000-plus employees.

The next mayor might change that.

At an Atlanta Journal-Constitution forum last week, all five leading candidates for mayor said their administration would have a vaccine mandate, or implement additional testing or other penalties for unvaccinated city workers.

ExploreAtlanta’s mayoral candidates make their cases at AJC forum

They had various approaches for how they would go about it, but all agreed additional steps were needed to increase the vaccination rate of the city’s workers. None went so far as to say that employees would be fired if they didn’t get the vaccine.

“We are at a point where vaccines keep everyone safe, not just the person who gets the vaccination,” attorney Sharon Gay said.

According to data provided to the AJC from the mayor’s office Tuesday, 67% of city employees are fully or partially vaccinated, and another 2% are scheduled to get the vaccine. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told the AJC she’s still not ruling out a vaccine mandate.

“It’s a bit more challenging because we’re already facing a labor shortage. That’s the reason we’re having challenges with our trash pickup, our yard trimmings, et cetera,” Bottoms said. “So we just want to be thoughtful. So it doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but we just aren’t there yet.”

In mid-September, the city launched an internal incentive program, giving unvaccinated employees a $100 bonus if they got jabbed — 165 people have taken advantage of that offer, the mayor’s office said.

“We’re really hoping that people will take advantage of the incentives and do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Bottoms said.

ExploreThe AJC asked: What do Atlanta residents want from the next mayor?

Councilman and mayoral candidate Andre Dickens agreed with the idea of an incentive program, saying he would use “carrots instead of sticks” to urge workers to get vaccinated before instituting penalties or additional requirements. He set a goal of a 100% vaccination rate within his first 100 days in office.

“There may be a time where we have to go further,” City Council President Felicia Moore said, “but if you are not vaccinated, you definitely need to be tested on a quite request basis, because many of our employees work in small areas with each other.”

Brown said his policy would require bi-weekly testing for unvaccinated workers, and setting up a health line to answer residents’ questions about COVID and the vaccine.

“There’s a lot of miscommunication, misinformation, miseducation that has deterred a lot of people from wanting to be vaccinated,” Brown said.

Former mayor Kasim Reed said he would work with other elected officials in metro Atlanta to increase vaccine rates.

“I also think that you should use the persuasive quality of the mayor’s office to really galvanize other leaders across the region,” Reed said.

Brookhaven, Decatur and Athens-Clarke County all have implemented vaccine mandates for their employees. Brookhaven and Decatur gave their employees an option to take routine COVID-19 tests if they aren’t vaccinated.

More private employers are beginning to take similar steps. And the Biden administration last month announced a new policy that will require any business with 100 or more employees to require vaccines or weekly testing.

Gov. Brian Kemp, meanwhile, signed an executive order earlier this year barring state employees from having to show proof of vaccination. Kemp has encouraged Georgians to get the vaccine but doesn’t support broad mandates.