N.Y.P.D. to Unvaccinated Officers: Wear Masks or Face Discipline

New York City police officials, confronting a lagging vaccination rate among officers even as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise in the city, warned officers that they would discipline unvaccinated personnel who do not wear masks while on duty.

The policy, which the New York Post first reported on Wednesday, comes less than a month before a city mandate takes effect requiring city workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio last month issued the mandate in a bid to encourage vaccination and thwart a new wave of the pandemic triggered by the more contagious Delta variant. The order, set to go into effect on Sept. 13, covers more than 340,000 municipal employees.

The Police Department appears to have one of the lowest vaccination rates among city agencies. As of this week, about 47 percent of the department’s 36,000 uniformed and 15,000 civilian employees have been vaccinated, said Detective Annette Shelton, a spokeswoman.

By contrast, city officials have said that more than 54 percent of the Fire Department’s employees and more than 60 percent of all Department of Education employees are vaccinated. Those figures do not include those who got their shots outside of New York City.

As such, the mask guidance issued this week will likely apply to a large part of the police force.

Ms. Shelton said that officers who did not submit proof that they were vaccinated would be required to “wear a face covering at all times while working,” whether inside, outside or driving in police vehicles. They would be allowed to remove them while eating or drinking, if they were to have difficulty breathing or were otherwise “engaging in reasonable activities” like adjusting their masks.

Those officers who did not comply would face “appropriate disciplinary action,” she said. She and other Police Department representatives did not respond to questions about what penalties officers might face.

The guidance issued this week comes as coronavirus cases have been climbing dramatically in New York City. As of Monday, an average 1,820 new cases were reported every day over a seven-day period, nearly three times the average from one month earlier, which was 607 new cases, according to the city’s health department.

Virus-related hospitalizations have also risen, according to the health department. As of Monday, an average of 86 people were newly hospitalized in the city each day over the past week, up from 29 per day a month earlier. Deaths, too, have risen: the seven-day average number of deaths was seven per day, up from four per day a month earlier.

Still, the hospitalizations and deaths in New York remain well below last winter’s spike and significantly below the worst of the pandemic when it swept into the city in March and April 2020. Experts have said that vaccinated people are far less likely to experience severe illness.

Mr. de Blasio and top police officials have encouraged officers to get vaccinated, and the police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, has voiced support for Mr. de Blasio’s mandate. But whether a significant number of rank-and-file members will move quickly to get vaccinated before the Sept. 13 deadline remains uncertain.

The mask guidance issued this week also clarifies that all officers, vaccinated or not, will still be required to wear masks in elevators and when interacting with any members of the public. They must also have face coverings when in schools, on public transit or in congregate settings like homeless shelters, jails, nursing homes and health care facilities.

The city’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, did not respond to requests for comment on the department’s guidance. It has also so far declined to comment on the city’s vaccine mandate, even as other unions have expressed opposition.

Officers have for more than a year been criticized for flouting various mask mandates. On Thursday, Molly Crane-Newman, a reporter for The New York Daily News, said she observed an officer without a mask inside a Manhattan courtroom despite state guidance requiring masks inside.

A reporter for WNYC, Stephen Nessen, took photos in July of officers ignoring the state’s longstanding requirement to wear masks in the subway system, and social media has been filled with similar observations since the early months of the pandemic.

The guidance issued this week mirrors similar warnings given last October, months before vaccines were available. At the time, New York State had a directive in place requiring people to wear face coverings in public when social distancing was not possible. Officers were told then in memos and a video that they must wear masks in public and that they risked being disciplined if they failed to comply.

But it is unclear whether any officers were actually disciplined for such behavior. Since May 2020, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints from the public about officer misconduct, has referred 316 complaints about officers who failed to adhere to Covid-era protocols, including social distancing guidelines and mask mandates, to the Police Department.

The department did not respond to repeated questions asking whether it had penalized officers for mask violations.

Eliza Shapiro contributed reporting.

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