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Joe Biden has announced that all civilian federal workers must attest to being vaccinated against the coronavirus or face regular testing and stringent physical distancing, masking and travel restrictions.
Facing a daunting political test as the Delta variant cuts a swath through unvaccinated Americans, the president outlined a more aggressive approach by the federal government and expressed hope that it would offer a model for corporate employers.
But not for the first time, the pandemic response in the US is hampered by partisan politics and a growing divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Biden’s intervention was likely to produce a renewed backlash from Republican politicians warning against government encroachment on individual freedom.
The highly infectious Delta variant has caused coronavirus cases and hospitalisations to rebound in many parts of the US, which is averaging nearly 62,000 new Covid-19 infections a day. The vast majority of those hospitalised and dying have not been vaccinated.
Calling it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, Biden noted on Thursday that about 90m Americans who are eligible for a shot have not yet got one. “Masking is one defense against the spread of Covid-19 but make no mistake: vaccines are the best defence against you getting severely ill from Covid-19. The very best defence.”
Signalling a shift in tone for the administration, he said in the East Room of the White House: “In addition to providing incentives to encourage vaccination, it’s time to impose requirements on key groups to ensure they’re vaccinated.
“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status. Anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated will be required to mask, no matter where they work, test one or two times a week to see if they’ve acquired Covid, socially distance, and generally will not be allowed to travel for work.”
The president added: “Likewise, today, I’m directing my administration to take steps to apply similar standards to all federal contractors. If you want to do business with the federal government, get your workers vaccinated.”
The federal government is America’s biggest employer, including about 2.18 million civilian workers, while another 570,000 people work for the postal service, according to 2020 data. The workers are spread across the country, including many in states where vaccine scepticism runs high.
Paul Light, a public service professor at New York University, told the Associated Press before the announcement, “If the federal government were to say that everybody who works for the government directly or indirectly must be vaccinated, that’s a massive footprint.”
It was unclear whether the new requirement would apply to the postal service. But the White House said Biden was directing his team to take steps to apply similar standards to the Department of Defense to look into how and when it will add Covid-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military.
But the pandemic response continues to divide the country, with some Republicans already pushing back at the new guidance.
Ralph Norman, a congressman from South Carolina, said: “To require individuals to provide proof of vaccination would be a massive intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship and the privacy of the individual.”
Congress itself has become a partisan battleground over the issue after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance on Tuesday that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high Covid-19 transmission.
Some Republicans revolted after the US Capitol’s attending physician sent a memo informing members that masks would again have to be worn inside the House of Representatives at all times.
The Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, called the Republican House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, “a moron” after McCarthy tweeted: “The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.”
The head of the US Capitol police announced that congressional aides and visitors to the House side of the Capitol will face arrest if they are not wearing masks.
Republicans also forced a vote to adjourn the chamber in protest against the mandate, which was defeated along mostly party lines, and there were angry confrontations between members in the corridors.
Many Republican state leaders are blocking preventive measures, potentially making it harder to tame virus outbreaks in conservative communities. At least 18 Republican-led states have moved to prohibit vaccine passports or to ban public entities from requiring proof of vaccination. Some have prohibited schools from requiring any student or teacher to wear a mask or be vaccinated.
Biden, a champion of bipartisanship, pointedly praised the efforts of Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, and Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama, to get people vaccinated.
He added: “People are dying and will die who don’t have to die. If you’re out there unvaccinated, you don’t have to die. This is not about red states and blue states. It is literally about life and death. It’s about life and death.”
Seeking to pre-empt criticism from the right, the president said: “I know people talk about freedom, but I learned growing up ... with freedom comes responsibility. Your decision to be unvaccinated impacts someone else. Unvaccinated people spread the virus.”
Divisions extend to workers, however. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO union, told the CSPAN network that its members support vaccine mandates. “If you come back in and you are not vaccinated, everybody in that workplace is jeopardised,” Trumka said.
But the American Postal Workers Union said it opposed a vaccine mandate for federal employees and expressed concern about Biden’s announcement. “While the APWU leadership continues to encourage postal workers to voluntarily get vaccinated, it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent,” the group said in a statement.
Biden also announced that small- and medium-sized businesses will be reimbursed for offering their employees paid leave to get their family members, including their children, vaccinated.
He called on states, territories and local governments to do more to incentivise vaccination, including offering $100 to those who get vaccinated. “Here’s the deal: if incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them. With incentives and mandates, we will make a huge difference and save a lot of lives.”
And, in an effort to get more children 12 and older vaccinated, Biden urged school districts nationwide to host at least one pop-up vaccination clinic over the coming weeks.
Biden missed his goal of having 70% of adults get at least one shot by 4 July; the latest figure is 69.3%. About 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated meaning that, despite a head start, it now has a lower share of fully vaccinated people than the European Union and Canada.
Companies including Google have announced vaccine mandates. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs is requiring its employees to disclose their vaccination status but is not mandating they be vaccinated.