New York City Could See Up to 20 Percent of Firehouses Close as Vaccine Mandate Looms

New York City firefighters, along with other city workers, face a COVID-19 vaccine mandate starting at 5 p.m. Friday, with unvaccinated workers to be placed on unpaid leave starting Monday, the Associated Press reported.

Fire department officials have been holding virtual meetings with staff, encouraging them to get vaccinated before fire stations and ambulances lose critical staff.

According to city data, 29 percent of firefighters, 26 percent of police and 33 percent of sanitation workers remain unvaccinated. Without these crucial workers, 20 percent of fire stations are expected to close, and there will be fewer ambulances and police on the streets.

Mayor Bill de Blasio held firm, even as the city's largest police union protested and went to an appeals court to stop the mandate, and firefighters rallied Thursday outside de Blasio's home.

"My job is to keep people safe—my employees and 8.8 million people," he said. "And until we defeat COVID, people are not safe. If we don't stop COVID, New Yorkers will die."

The mayor plans to start mandatory overtime, extra shifts and 12-hour workdays in order to maintain adequate staffing across the city, plans that he said are typically used "in times of challenging crisis."

Firefighter Jackie-Michelle Martinez said workers should be given their "God-given right" to choose what goes into their body, and questioned why workers couldn't continue testing instead of mandating the vaccine in order to keep their jobs.

"If the weekly testing is working, why are you, Mayor de Blasio, eliminating it?" she asked.

The mayor believes the impending deadline will push more individuals to get vaccinated, as in the last week, the number of mandated workers who got vaccinated rose from 71 percent to 76 percent.

"We expected that a lot of the vaccinations would happen toward the end of the deadline," he said. "We also know a lot of people make the decision once they really realize that they're not going to get paid. That's just the human reality."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Vaccine Mandate Protest NYC
New York firefighters, police officers, garbage collectors and other city workers face a COVID-19 vaccine mandate starting at 5 p.m. Friday, with unvaccinated workers to be put on unpaid leave starting Monday. Above, firefighters rally outside Mayor Bill De Blasio's residence at Gracie Mansion to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers on October 28, 2021, in New York City. Jeenah Moon/Associated Press

Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said the hard deadline "sets the city up for a real crisis."

Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, warned that longer response times will "be a death sentence to some people."

People who refuse to get vaccinated are now a big factor in the continued spread of the virus. Backers of mandates say New Yorkers have a right not to be infected by public servants unwilling to get the shots.

"The department must manage the unfortunate fact that a portion of our workforce has refused to comply with a vaccine mandate for all city employees," Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, who had COVID-19 in January, said his department was sending reminders to workers whose records indicated they hadn't yet received a shot and that NYPD vaccination sites will remain open all weekend.

More than 700 officers were vaccinated on Thursday alone, the NYPD said, rushing to meet the deadline for the mandate and an extra incentive: workers who get a shot by Friday will get $500.

"On Monday, when this thing really starts being enforced, we're going to check the vaccination status, and if you're not vaccinated, no pay and you're going to be not able to work," Shea said in a video message Wednesday to officers. "I don't think anyone wants that to happen. I don't think you want it to happen. I certainly don't. We need you out there."

A Staten Island judge on Wednesday refused a police union's request for a temporary block on the mandate, but she ordered city officials into her courtroom next month to explain why the requirement shouldn't be reversed. If the mandate is deemed illegal, workers put on leave will be given back pay, the city said.

Mike Salsedo, 44, was among hundreds of firefighters protesting Thursday outside de Blasio's residence, Gracie Mansion. He said he believes he has natural immunity to COVID-19 after having the disease last year and doesn't need to be vaccinated, a stance that's contrary to the consensus among public health experts.

"I'm a man of faith, and I don't believe that putting something manmade into my body is good," Salsedo said.

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death of law enforcement officers in the U.S., killing 498 officers since the start of 2020 compared to 102 gun deaths, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks police fatalities.

When the state required all workers at hospitals and nursing homes to get vaccinated, a last-minute rush of people to comply meant that few facilities experienced staffing challenges.