Omicron prompts rethink of vaccine impact, COVID-19 mandates

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Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Mandates have curbed almost everything except COVID-19 cases

Someone has to say it, and I derive no pleasure from doing so. But here goes:

The Omicron wave is exposing the limits of COVID-19 restrictions, which are clearly failing. These include ferociously debated vaccine passports and masking policies that have done little, if anything, to tame skyrocketing numbers throttling the Northeast.

Hard-hit travel, leisure and small businesses — especially restaurants — are bearing the brunt of questionable protocols that clearly need rethinking, if not scrapping outright. And for the record, it’s not just America. China's aggressive zero-COVID policies that have exacerbated global supply chain problems aren’t doing much to curb the spread there, either.

“At this point, vaccine mandates are more disempowering to business than empowering,” Denise Graziano, CEO of Graziano Associates, a marketing communications firm, told the Morning Brief in an email.

“Policies, tools and communication must adapt to where we are now two full years into the pandemic, Graziano added. “Vaccines have been invaluable to bring us to this point, but mandating drives away customers, good employees, job candidates, and creates more division inside (and outside) of organizations.”

Previously, the Morning Brief has written about the double-edged sword of mandates, and how they militate against the impulses of people who (vaccinated or not) are erring on the side of freedom of movement.

Over the holiday weekend, an Atlantic article underscored how America’s “soft lockdown” is leading to voluntary shutdowns. As the virus-averse avoid public spaces, it's become a drag on the economy and spending.

The article also highlighted how the preponderance of Omicron-fueled breakout infections, and the attendant shutdowns of (highly vaccinated) New York City venues, Apple Stores and Broadway shows, are undermining illusions of safety. It's also questioning an underlying premise that effectively cleaved society into castes of vaccinated and unvaccinated.

The chill is mostly being felt among beleaguered bars and restaurants. In NYC, one of the nation’s strictest vaccine mandates has sparked mixed reactions from a diverse array of businesses, but with a common thread: lost business, and upset or confused customers.

And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the shifting definition behind what constitutes “fully vaccinated” as the campaign for a third (or fourth?) jab gets underway. Some eateries have openly embraced boosters as “the only way to go,” as Yahoo Finance’s Brooke DiPalma reported last week.

But others are pushing back, such as Brooklyn Dumpling Shop owner Stratis Morfogen — famed for using a contraption called “The Monster” to make his popular bites. It goes without saying that year three of the pandemic is shaping up to be as complicated as ever.

Meanwhile, dining rooms, largely empty, are reaping the whirlwind of soft lockdowns.

“We're seeing [reservations] trending roughly towards around 30% to 45% per night in cancellations, either the day before or day of, which is incredibly detrimental to restaurants,” David Nayfeld, a San Francisco chef and restaurateur, told Yahoo Finance’s Dani Romero last week.

Still, the legality of states and local governments imposing vaccine mandates has been upheld by the Supreme Court. That argument got an unexpected endorsement this week from President Joe Biden, who said the COVID surge had “no federal solution,” even as his own mandates have been challenged in court.

“For a long time we left people to make their own decisions, and that didn’t work so well,” Sharona Hoffman, a law professor and co-director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University, told the Morning Brief in an interview.

“We did not have the vaccination rates we hoped for, and it's understandable that mandates came into play,” Hoffman said.

As for the vaccine hesitant, she added that “it's one thing to reject medical care when it only affects you, it’s another thing to endanger others.” Likening mandates to speed limits and bans on public smoking, Hoffman said that “even if there isn’t a state mandate, it’s within the rights of private businesses to make a safe place to go to.”

Yet it’s undeniable that key service industries have been caught in a downdraft of COVID-weary and cynical patrons, worker shortages (in part viewed as the impetus behind the Centers for Disease Control shortening the quarantine time for those who test positive for the virus), and heated skirmishes on land, and in the air.

Even highly vaccinated areas are confronting the limits of politically charged COVID protocols. Mask requirements have been openly dismissed by Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Ned Lamont, whose state is also in the throes of a COVID surge.

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We have now arrived at a place where even those ostensibly supportive of mandates are slowly coming around to the realization that there’s only so much that can be done in the face of an airborne virus that’s become more communicable.

In practice, that means adequately managing risk for those most vulnerable, and contextualizing shock-horror spikes in raw case numbers, while relying on the rapid advances in treatments to blunt COVID’s worst effects as people move about, hopefully less encumbered by restrictions.

“Beyond vaccines, treatment options are becoming more available," Georgetown University health law professor Rik Mehta told Yahoo Finance Live on Monday. "That will keep people that are vaccinated and unvaccinated out of the hospitals, and from developing severe infection. That’s going to be a game changer for this.”

By Javier E. David, editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him at @Teflongeek

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