Both cities have been among the most aggressive in Georgia to take steps against COVID-19, enacting mask mandates and providing incentives for employees to get vaccinated. Taking the step to mandate employee vaccines puts both cities ahead of other municipalities and could draw legal challenges or result in lost workers at a time when hiring has been difficult.
Arnold said Decatur’s policy mirrors the federal vaccine mandate enacted by President Joe Biden earlier this month, which immediately received pushback from Gov. Brian Kemp. It’s unclear whether Kemp’s office plans to challenge the cities’ mandates in court. The governor’s office didn’t return requests for comment Tuesday.
Brennan wouldn’t comment about whether legal action could result from the city’s policy, but Arnold said the possibility doesn’t worry her.
“We’re doing this because we truly believe that the vaccine is one of the best tools that we have today to slow the spread of the virus,” she said. “I think it’s our responsibility to use it.”
Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, praised the cities’ decision to enact vaccine mandates.
“Is that going to turn the tide of the global pandemic? No,” Heiman said. “But the fact of the matter is, when local leaders stand up and do the right thing, it helps empower other local leaders to do the same thing. And when government leaders do it, it helps empower business leaders to do it.”
A few large Georgia companies, including UPS, Delta, Emory Healthcare and Home Depot, have required their employees to get vaccinated.
Atlanta city leaders have discussed enacting a vaccine mandate for its employees but has not taken any action. DeKalb County leaders have had similar discussions, but have held off. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond has expressed concern about potentially losing staff.
Current Decatur employees will have until Nov. 30 to show proof that they’re fully vaccinated or they’ll have to test negative for COVID-19 each week in order to continue working. Arnold added that all new hires will be required to get vaccinated. Brookhaven announced the same policy for job applicants Tuesday.
“The City of Brookhaven recognizes that unvaccinated persons carry a greater risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19, and taking proactive steps to ensure the protection of the health risk for employees and the public at large while also recognizing the individual right of employees to not be vaccinated,” Brennan said.
Decatur’s budget calls for 232 full-time workers in addition to nearly 300 part-time employees, Arnold said. While current employees haven’t had to report their vaccination status, she said nearly 63% of employees have voluntarily said they’re fully vaccinated. Brennan said Brookhaven’s vaccination rate is at nearly 77% as of last Friday.
Arnold said Decatur city employees have been made aware of the policy, but the written details haven’t been disseminated yet.
“If you opt not to participate in the policy, then someone may leave,” she said. “But based off of our employee base, I’m confident that most of our employees will recognize that this is being done to protect them, and I believe they’ll choose to stay with an organization that values their health and safety.”
Decatur’s announcement comes roughly two weeks after Decatur City Schools announced it will mandate vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition of employment. Superintendent Maddie Fehrman said last month that Decatur was the first school district in the state to mandate a vaccine. The district’s nearly 1,000 teachers and staff have until the end of October to get their shots or to secure an exemption. Fehrman said the school board is still debating whether to enact a mandate for children.
Decatur and its school district were among the first local government entities to offer incentives to employees to get vaccinated. In February, the city offered an incentive package for hesitant city employees and first responders. At the time, fewer than half of the city’s 150 police officers, firefighters and public works employees had gotten vaccinated.
About 50% of DeKalb residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the most recent data from the DeKalb County Board of Health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s more than the statewide vaccination percentage, which is about 45%. However, DeKalb lags behind the nationwide vaccination percentage, which is more than 55%.
On Monday, the Decatur City Commission also passed a COVID-19 leave policy for fully vaccinated city employees. They can receive two weeks of paid leave if they become ill, need to quarantine or need to take care of a family member due to COVID-19 infection or exposure. The policy will be in effect through the end of June 2022.
The commission also unanimously extended the city’s mask mandate, which applied to both government buildings and private businesses. Decatur is one of the few Georgia cities that brought back its mask mandate in mid-August amid a surge in COVID-19 cases spurred by the Delta variant.
Decatur gave business owners the option to opt out of enforcing the mandate by posting signs for the public that they were not requiring masks. The city’s mandate will remain in effect through Nov. 1.
When Biden announced a federal vaccine mandate that will affect as many as 100 million Americans on Sept. 9, Kemp was quick to say he’d challenge the policy in court. He said he will “pursue every legal option available to the state of Georgia to stop this blatantly unlawful overreach by the Biden administration.”
In addition, Kemp signed an executive order last month preventing local governments from requiring private businesses to mandate masks for employees and customers — likely influencing Decatur’s decision to include an opt-out clause in its mask mandate.
Heiman called vaccine mandates a “proven public health tool” and expressed frustration over state leadership’s “unexplainable intransigence” on the issue.
”I think when your job requires it, often that’s the kind of inflection point for people in making a decision to go ahead and get it,” he said.
— AJC staff reporter Tyler Estep contributed to this report.
Behind the mandates:
City Councils do not have to vote on the issue of requiring vaccines for employees. In the case of Brookhaven and Decatur, the vaccine mandates were decisions made by city managers and other top staff members outside of public meetings. Because of this, it’s difficult to be certain if other municipalities around Georgia have their own employee vaccine mandates. As of Tuesday, no other cities had announced similar policies.