RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Thursday, July 29, that, although statewide mask mandates will still expire July 30 according to recent guidance, his administration is launching vaccination verification requirements for Cabinet agencies and a general campaign to pressure other government entities and private businesses toward similar vaccination requirements.
“This virus is now much more contagious and spreading fast, and it will find you if you’re not vaccinated,” Cooper stated to lead off his latest COVID-19 media briefing. Later asked if he would go as far as calling the unvaccinated “irresponsible,” he replied, “Yes, I would.”
Announced hastily after suddenly changing currents on masks and vaccination among federal health authorities and the Biden administration, many North Carolinians wondered if Thursday’s press conference would mark a quick return of recently eliminated mask mandates. That reversal did not come, as Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said, “People know what to do,” when it comes to masks.
What Cooper did bring is an aggressive push for vaccination campaigns and an aggressive tone for those who have not taken the vaccine. Of the unvaccinated, the governor and secretary announced new strongly worded guidance, stopping short of a mandate, that says the unvaccinated should mask in all indoor public settings, practice social distancing of at least six feet, should not gather with other unvaccinated people, and that they should not travel at all.
The stepped-up push for vaccination most notably includes new vaccination verification requirements for all Cabinet agency employees. Effective Sept. 1, the new executive order will require said employees to verify their vaccination status. Further, the unvaccinated employees will be required to get tested for COVID-19 at least once a week while also being required to wear a mask at all times on the job.
“If they refuse to do that, there will be some consequences,” threatened Cooper.
The Cooper administration sent a letter Thursday to all employees of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services saying that all “facility employees, volunteer, students, trainees, contracted, and temporary employees must be fully vaccinated by September 30, 2021.”
Those employees that have been infected by, and recovered from the coronavirus, were not addressed in Thursday’s press conference. North Carolinians, in general, with such natural immunity, have thus far not factored into changing guidance on masks and vaccination.
In May, the N.C. House passed legislation that would ban a government agency from mandating a vaccine as a condition of employment or licensing. House Bill 572 is currently awaiting action in the Senate Rules Committee.
Cooper said while his authority extends only to Cabinet agencies under his direct authority, he hopes other state agencies and departments will follow his lead. It’s unclear how many will, in fact, follow the governor’s lead in requiring vaccination verification, testing, and masking. Leadership differences in how agencies approach pandemic policies are bound to factor into those decisions, especially among the Council of State. Each elected council member oversees staff who are not subject to Cooper’s direct authority.
When it comes to unvaccinated residents, Cooper had a much more aggressive tone. After he and Cohen reviewed slides showing recent spikes in cases across much of the state, the governor expressed solidarity with those vaccinated citizens frustrated with the unvaccinated, and encouraged them to channel that anger toward pressuring their friends and family to get vaccinated.
“Many vaccinated people are frustrated and mad; you’ve been doing your part,” Cooper said sympathetically. “Channel that frustration toward pushing your unvaccinated family and friends to get the shot.”
He also encouraged private businesses to channel their resources into coordinated vaccination requirements, such as verification, masking of the unvaccinated, or employee vaccine mandates, asserting, “being a good corporate citizen means getting your people vaccinated.”
Recently updated guidance from the state issues vaccination mandates for employees, staff, students, and volunteers working at any state-operated health care facilities. Many private health systems are requiring the same of employees, echoed by the N.C. Healthcare Association. Many private universities and colleges are requiring vaccination and universal masking when the fall semester begins.
The vaccination hyperdrive from Cooper parallels that from President Biden. The latter recently announced vaccine mandates for all federal employees and echoed new guidance on re-masking of both the vaccinated and unvaccinated as delta-variant fears are amplified.
The question, ultimately, is whether the pressure campaign will work. Previous incentives such as a $1 million vaccine lottery failed to move the needle meaningfully after being announced in June, and a more aggressive approach might backfire.
Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, issued a statement describing the effects of all the rapidly changing guidance as “whiplash.”
Despite the absence of a new mask mandate, adding teeth to vaccination pressure through verification and masking sets up a rolling series of questions about how this will affect state employees. What are the exemptions? How will discriminatory masking and testing affect work environments? Which entities will adopt them, and will conflicts of authority arise?