Newport, Lincoln City and Lincoln County employees could all be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or be tested regularly under new federal guidelines announced by President Joe Biden earlier this month.
Biden said Sept. 9 he would order all executive branch employees, federal contractors and millions of health care workers nationwide to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The president also said he was directing the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create workplace regulations — a temporary emergency standard — requiring all employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccinations or regular COVID testing.
Newport City Manager Spencer Nebel told the Newport City Council during its regular meeting Sept. 20 that Oregon Occupational Safety and Health was still waiting for the directives from its federal counterpart before issuing state regulations.
“We’re waiting for that to come through, but it is our understanding that it will require employers with over 100 employees to either require vaccinations or weekly testing,” Nebel said. “If that’s what comes through Oregon OSHA, that’s what we’ll be implementing in the city of Newport, as well.”
Nebel also discussed current infection control policies in city facilities, noting that the council was now meeting remotely per the standard it established during its Sept. 7 meeting — 100 new cases in a month triggers the return to all-remote meetings for council and committees.
CM Hall, council president, said for her — feeling safe about returning to in-person meetings was less a matter of the number of new cases as it was the percentage of people in city hall who are vaccinated.
“When we have a very high percentage of those vaccinated who are at city hall, then I’m going to feel safe,” Hall said. “But we’re sitting so close to everyone else, and like eating sandwiches, and talking on a microphone. It just feels precarious.
“I don’t think that’s the right message for us to proceed with. Because we care about the community, we should really put those values to the test, saying, ‘And we want you vaccinated.’ I feel like it has to be internal. I know that we’re waiting to hear what that’s going to look like, but that’s when I’m going to think, ‘Yeah, I am coming back,’” Hall said.
The issue of mandating employee vaccinations also arose as a discussion point during council’s Sept. 7 meeting, prior to Biden’s announcement.
Councilor Dietmar Goebel said he’d previously told Nebel he thought it was time to require employees to get vaccinated, and the city manager had said he would investigate the possibility.
“Basically, prior to any of the vaccines being approved, the legal advice was not to mandate vaccinations,” Nebel said. “We’re currently evaluating where we’re at. But, we have a majority of our employees in bargaining units,” he said, noting that some of Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccine mandates were currently subject to legal challenges by employee unions.
Hall said, “I recognize there are issues with collective bargaining units. I think it comes down to, are you in a frontline position, are you a first responder, are you engaging with the public face to face on a regular basis? If that’s the case, that doesn’t seem negotiable to me.”
Fire Chief Rob Murphy told council there was already a high rate of vaccination among city employees, at least more than 50 and probably close to 70 or 80 percent, he said.
“I personally support vaccination. I’m fully vaccinated. I think it’s the smart and right thing to do. That’s me personally,” Murphy said. “To offer a counterpoint, since we’re the only ones here for staff to speak … We know we have staff who feel very strongly about their personal right to choose whether they get vaccinated or not.”
Police Chief Jason Malloy said there was a lot of discussion statewide among police chiefs and sheriffs regarding vaccine mandates, and a survey among them found that most supported “the fundamental right of people to make their own choice.”
The chief said he knew his department was not 100 percent vaccinated, and those who opt against a shot were not pressed about the decision. “I also know that we will have openings [if we mandate vaccines],” Malloy said.
“We’ll all have openings if people die,” Hall said.
With 507 employees, the federal mandate will likely also apply to Lincoln County. Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Chair Doug Hunt said there was no active planning about how to implement a mandate while the federal directive is pending, and that once the state receives that guidance and Oregon OSHA develops its own, the county will abide by it.
The county has already incentivized shots with the approval of a one-time, $500 bonus for employees who provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 31. Lincoln County Human Resources Director David Collier said they’d received 379 vaccination records as of Monday, about 75 percent of the county workforce.
Similar in size to Newport, Lincoln City will also likely have to implement the federal guidelines. Council has yet to discuss the issue in a public meeting.