Federal Judges Uphold Status Quo in Rulings on 3 New York COVID Vaccine Mandates

October 13, 2021 by

Federal judges issued three different decisions on New York state and city requirements for Covid-19 vaccinations, upholding the status quo as the contentious issue winds it way through the court system.

New York City’s program requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms and clubs can continue, a judge in Brooklyn ruled Tuesday, rejecting a claim of racial bias. A judge in Manhattan once again rejected the argument by a group of New York City teachers and other staff who are seeking exemptions for vaccination requirements for school staff on religious or medical grounds. A third judge reiterated that state health authorities can’t enforce a mandate on health care workers without a religious exception.

The rulings come as the governor of Texas said companies shouldn’t be mandating vaccination for workers, an order that appears to conflict with President Joe Biden’s national orders on vaccine mandates.

The issues ultimately may have to be resolved by the federal appeals court in Manhattan, which on Thursday will consider separate challenges to vaccine mandates that apply to New York City teachers and to health care workers statewide. Meanwhile, businesses, employees and consumers are subject to a shifting legal landscape.

Mandates and Race

The ruling in Brooklyn followed a lawsuit filed last month by a group of city residents, including business owners, seeking to block Mayor Bill de Blasio’s program, Key to NYC. They claim it illegally discriminates on the basis of race because Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have vaccination rates below the city average and are therefore disproportionately barred from indoor commercial spaces. U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan rejected that argument.

“Any African American or Hispanic individual has a right to access a ‘covered premise,’ if that individual has documents showing they are vaccinated,” Cogan wrote in denying a preliminary injunction to halt the program. “The same is true for any other individual in New York City.”

QuickTake: Can I Be Required to Get Vaccinated Against Covid-19?

He also rejected arguments that the program infringes on freedom of religion, freedom of association and the right to bodily integrity, and ruled that requiring businesses to check vaccine status doesn’t constitute “involuntary servitude” in violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, among other arguments made in the lawsuit.

The Independent Restaurant Owners Association Rescue vowed to appeal the ruling.

“While we are disappointed in today’s ruling, we will shortly file a notice of appeal, and we intend to fight on all the way to the United States Supreme Court,” the group said in a statement.

A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the city was “pleased with the decision” and that the program is “an integral tool to get more people vaccinated and for the city’s recovery.”

About 72% of New Yorkers have had at least one vaccine dose, compared with 48% of Black residents, while the total among Hispanics jumped to 63% after government outreach to the community, city health department data show.

No ‘Anti-Religious Animus’

In the Manhattan ruling against the school employees, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni said they’d failed to show evidence of “even a whiff of anti-religious animus” in statements by de Blasio encouraging vaccination. Caproni delivered her ruling from the bench after hearing legal arguments from both sides. She said the teachers had failed to show a likelihood they will succeed on their claims, a requirement for an injunction.

Upstate in Utica, U.S. District Judge David Hurd agreed to extend a temporary order he issued Sept. 14 freezing a state order that applies to health care workers throughout New York.

“Because the issues in dispute are of exceptional importance to the health and the religious freedoms of our citizens, an appeal may very well be appropriate,” he wrote.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said in a statement that her responsibility “is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that.” She added: “I stand behind this mandate, and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe.”

Thursday’s hearing before the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Manhattan, will include oral argument in the two separate cases: a challenge by health care workers statewide and one by New York City teachers who say a vaccine requirement for schools must include a religious exemption.

Disputes have arisen across the country, with Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Monday extending a ban on mandatory Covid vaccination in the state from municipalities and schools to private employers.

The Brooklyn case is Dixon v. de Blasio, 21-cv-05090, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York. The Manhattan case is Kane v. de Blasio, 21-cv-07863, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. The upstate case is Dr. A. v. Hochul, 21-cv-01009, U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York.

Photo: Customers sit at the bar at the Chelsea Bell restaurant in New York.