New York City needs a morale boost (and an economic boost), and Kyrie Irving’s home game success with the Brooklyn Nets is more likely to provide that than a private employer vaccine mandate. That’s the argument New York City Mayor Eric Adams made at his press conference Thursday morning at Citi Field in Queens, as Adams lifted the mandate on New York based professional athletes and performing artists. And if employees working in other industries who are still covered by the mandate think they’re being treated differently, they’re right. “We’re talking about a small number of people that’s having a major impact on our economy,” Adams said.
What’s the major difference? It’s not just about making money for the city – it’s about having fun. In his first three months in office, Adams has made it clear that dining, entertainment and tourism are of central importance to the city.
There’s a real economic argument behind that. Nightlife is a $35.1 billion dollar industry in the city, Adams said Thursday, and the industry was devastated by the coronavirus. The city lost 300,000 nightlife jobs at the peak of the pandemic, Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development Maria Torres-Springer said, and the sector is still down about 80,000 jobs from pre-pandemic levels.
But New York City’s entertainment and nightlife offerings are also important to Adams’ mayoralty, as he himself samples what the city has to offer at every opportunity. Adams is the mayor who made a second home at downtown Manhattan club Zero Bond during the election, and who is racking up appearances at designer fashion shows. Sure, other mayors have been known to catch a game or attend a couple Broadway shows, but Adams seems to relish sitting courtside at the Knicks and taking in a jazz set. And even all that is too boring for him.
But the city’s economy goes far beyond professional sports or clubs, and Adams’ executive order openly privileges athletes and other performing artists who have chosen not to get vaccinated over other workers. Labor unions in particular saw an opportunity with the mayor’s announcement, calling on Adams to lift the mandate for everyone. Adams refused on Thursday, but said that City Hall would keep looking at what regulations they could “peel back to bring back a level of normality to our city.”
Adams tried to spin that fairness argument his own way, saying this wasn’t an issue of treating some of the wealthiest New Yorkers differently than everyone else, but rather one of treating wealthy New Yorkers differently than athletes and entertainers coming in from out of town. A rule instituted by former Mayor Bill de Blasio exempted athletes, performing artists and their support staff who were only in town briefly for games or performances from the otherwise strict vaccine requirements. That meant unvaccinated players from other teams could take the court at the Barclays Center while unvaccinated Brooklyn Nets players such as Kyrie Irving, could not. “We created an unfair disadvantage to New York-based performers,” Adams said. “I’m correcting that unfair disadvantage, and I’m doing it at the appropriate time when our numbers are low. And it’s the right thing to do.”
“The appropriate time,” happens to correspond with the beginning of the Major League Baseball season, and while the policy applies to all performing artists and professional athletes, the focus was clearly on baseball Thursday. Adams staged the announcements where the Mets play, and executives from the Mets and Yankees were given time to speak and praise the mayor. Representatives from the Nets were nowhere to be found, even though Irving has been the most high profile entertainer barred from playing home games for his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Irving has never given much explanation as to why he has declined the vaccines that are proven to reduce the likelihood and severity of COVID-19 cases, but he’s been steadfast in his refusal. Multiple local baseball players are also thought to be unvaccinated, including the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, though team executives would not reveal how many players or specific names.
Adams claimed Thursday he was not “lobbied” on the issue, even though lobbying filings show that – among others – former New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is being paid by a subsidiary of the Nets to lobby the mayor’s office on the issue. But Adams seemed to just be taking issue with the word, admitting that he spoke with representatives of both teams. Mets owner Steve Cohen spent more than almost anyone to help elect Adams, giving $1.5 million to a super PAC that supported Adams in the primary. Cohen also gave $500,000 at the time to a PAC supporting Andrew Yang.
But it’s hard to imagine that Adams needed much pushing on doing what he could to help the city’s baseball teams – even if it meant exempting players and supporting staff from vaccine mandates. New York City is one of, if not the only, municipality to have a vaccine mandate for all private employers. And while Adams maintained all of de Blasio’s regulations when he came into office, he has been slowly peeling them away in the hopes of revving the city’s economy back to its full strength.
This latest move, however, earned Adams a rare rebuke from New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who is not known for prioritizing fun. “I have serious concerns about the process, rationale and inequity in today’s decision to exempt professional athletes and performers,” she said in part of a longer emailed statement. “This exemption sends the wrong message that higher-paid workers and celebrities are being valued as more important than our devoted civil servants, which I reject. This is a step away from following sensible public health-driven policies that prioritize equity.”
Like Kyrie Irving, Mayor Adams is unlikely to be cowed. And if anybody is concerned, the Adams administration may encourage them to go watch a local sports team – and hope they win. Part of the official justification for lifting the mandate is that winning makes New Yorkers feel good. “This competitive disadvantage has negatively impacted, and continues to negatively impact, New York City teams' success,” the executive order reads, “which is important to the City's economic recovery and the morale of City residents and visitors.”