SALEM, MA — As Salem enters the final week before visitors and employees of city bars, restaurants, gyms, reception halls and other entertainment venues must show proof of coronavirus vaccination for entry and service, officials attempted to address some questions and concerns from businesses about the Board of Health's recent order.
Salem will join Boston as the only two cities in Eastern Mass. requiring proof of vaccination to enter certain indoor businesses. According to the order, visitors and employees of the affected business must have at least one vaccination shot as of Jan. 15 and must be fully vaccinated (two shots of Moderna or Pfizer, or one shot of Johnson & Johnson) as of March 1.
Mayor Kim Driscoll, who publicly supported the order prior to the Dec. 22 Board of Health vote, said she hopes businesses will view this as less of a burden and more of an opportunity for the city to cater to those who want to eat, drink and be entertained in an all-vaccinated environment.
"I know not everyone is supportive of this," she allowed in a virtual information session with businesses this week. "But I hope you understand it isn't desired that it is going to be punitive to you. In fact, we really want to work hard to ensure that as we work to protect the public health we're doing everything we can to support businesses."
She said the city is working on a "Safe in Salem" campaign to educate those considering a trip to the city that vaccines will be required, and that the intention is to create hiring and bonus incentives for businesses to help bolster staff.
"We still believe that this is our community vs. the virus," Driscoll said.
While many North Shore cities and towns were quick to reimpose at least a short-term mask mandate for indoor public spaces, no other city in Greater Boston has adopted the vaccination-entry order since the Salem Board of Health voted to approve its version last month.
"I know that every surrounding community is not going to implement something like this," Driscoll said. "That certainly would be easier (if they did). We would welcome the opportunity for this to be implemented regionally.
"But I feel our Board of Health and our community is looking at our data and thinks that we need to act. Because everybody is not going to act is not going to put us in a position to do nothing."
Salem Hospital President Dr. David Roberts said the hospital is at 98 percent capacity with beds and 96 percent in the ICU — which he said was a combination of increased COVID-related admissions and 35 beds that cannot be used because of staff shortages.
"(The omicron surge) is the perfect storm of increasing demand with an inability to meet that demand," he said. "As cases go up, our staff goes down."
He said there are 11 patients currently in the ICU — all of whom are unvaccinated. He said he anticipates the omicron urge to last six to eight more weeks before it abates.
The panel fielded questions from businesses involving enforcement, exemptions and which businesses must adhere to the vaccine order.
Health Agent David Greenbaum said the order is designed for spaces where "large groups of people gather without masks." Therefore, it was determined that personal-care businesses like nail salons and barbershops are not included. However, those attending wedding receptions and other parties in large public venues will have to confirm vaccinations.
Salem Public Schools issued revised coronavirus protocols prior to the return from the holiday break that vaccinations will be required to attend indoor school sporting events, concerts, theater productions and other group events.
Greenbaum said the expectation is that businesses will ask for vaccination proof "at the first point of contact (with an employee)" and that either a vaccination card or image of a vaccination card can be accepted until a proposed statewide vaccination phone app is made available.
"I understand that if a person is unvaccinated that could be a little intense but that person should be denied entry," he said.
Greenbaum said medical and religious exemptions can be handled at the business's discretion and that there is no negative-test alternative for vaccination.
Roberts said he hopes the order will act as an incentive for more people — especially those under 30 years old where Salem residents significantly lag behind the state average — to get vaccinated.
"If the response to this is 'this is a pain, I'm going to get vaccinated' that would have the most profound effect on the hospital," Roberts said.
(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Scott.Souza@Patch.com. Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)