Inside New York City’s Decision to End Vaccine Mandate for Pro Athletes

Less than two weeks ago, Mayor Eric Adams had a quick response to a heckler who implored him to drop the vaccine requirement that kept the Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving from playing in New York City.

“Kyrie can play tomorrow,” Mr. Adams retorted. “Get vaccinated.”

But privately, efforts were already underway by the owners and executives of some of the wealthiest and most influential sports franchises in the country to persuade Mr. Adams to change his mind.

The Yankees president, Randy Levine, personally reached out to the mayor’s team and encouraged officials to consider that baseball is played outdoors where Covid transmission rates are lower than indoors.

Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund manager and Mets owner who last year gave $1.5 million to a super PAC supporting Mr. Adams’s mayoral campaign, has been paying $10,000 a month to a lobbying firm, Moonshot Strategies, to push state officials and City Hall on several issues, including Covid protocols.

Both baseball teams are believed to have players who remain unvaccinated, with opening day now two weeks away.

Corey Johnson, the former speaker of the City Council who now runs his own lobbying firm, is receiving $18,000 a month from the Nets’s holding company, and lobbying records suggest that he recently contacted the mayor, his chief counsel and his chief of staff.

By this week, Mr. Adams decided to change course: He formally announced on Thursday that he was lifting the vaccine mandate in New York City for professional athletes and performers based here.

The mayor insisted that lobbying efforts played no role in his decision; instead, Mr. Adams said that the economic recovery of the city from the pandemic was the driving force behind the move. He said that sports and entertainment played vital roles in generating jobs and tax dollars.

“We’re leading the entire country for the most part in unemployment. We’re seeing unbelievable vacancies in our business district,” the mayor said at a news conference at Citi Field, the Mets’ home stadium. “Every day, men and women that are standing right here is dependent on our economy turning around so they could provide for their families.”

He said he had always believed it to be unfair that New York City-based athletes had to be vaccinated to play here, but visiting players did not — the result of an executive order dating to the prior administration. The city, the mayor said, was treating its own performers differently, noting that the mandate had put New York City teams at a “competitive disadvantage.”

But Mr. Adams, a Mets fan who was granted his wish that the news conference be held in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, said he did not lift the restrictions until he was satisfied that certain key virus metrics had been met.

Coronavirus cases have risen 31 percent over the last two weeks in New York City, with the BA.2 subvariant accounting for about a third of cases.

This is the second time in recent weeks that the mayor has rolled back regulations designed to incentivize vaccination. Earlier this month, he suspended rules that required patrons of indoor establishments, such as restaurants, to be vaccinated. The mayor’s executive order still requires most employers to require proof of vaccination from their employees.

Mr. Adams’s decision, which was first reported by Politico, stoked anger from the unions that represent the more than 1,500 public employees who lost their jobs because they did not abide by the vaccine mandate. They chided the mayor for what they cast as disparate treatment.

“There should be a re-entry program for workers to get their jobs back,” said Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association and chair of the Municipal Labor Committee. “There can’t be one system for the elite and another for the essential workers of our city. We stand ready to work out the details with the mayor, as we have been throughout this process.”

Mr. Nespoli said he was consulting lawyers about a potential lawsuit. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court rejected the latest effort by New York City teachers to challenge the vaccine mandate.

Kelly Finlaw, 38, an arts teacher in Washington Heights for 16 years, was one of the city’s 956 school employees fired for not getting vaccinated. Ms. Finlaw, who was fired last week, said she is unvaccinated because she had adverse reactions to vaccines as a child and because she has lingering questions about its safety. Health experts say, and studies show, that vaccines are safe and effective.

She said she applied for exemptions to the mandate for teachers three times and was denied.

Ms. Finlaw said the exemption to the vaccine mandate for athletes and performers made Mayor Adams look “foolish” and demonstrated that decisions were made around politics, not public health.

“When Kyrie decided to not get vaccinated and was willing to take a stand for it in the beginning, I was very, very grateful because he has notoriety that no teacher is ever going to have,” Ms. Finlaw said.

Mr. Irving, she added, “doesn’t do more important work than I do.” The Nets did not respond to a request for comment.

The mayor said that he had not been lobbied on the issue, although he had spoken to teams about it. “I’ve heard all sides and then I made the final determination, but this is not based on lobbying coming in,” he said.

Beyond the outreach of Mr. Johnson, who refused a request for comment, the Nets are also paying the Parkside Group $7,500 a month to lobby city and state government, including on Covid-related business protocols.

Both Mr. Levine and Sandy Alderson, the president of the Mets, said they did not officially lobby the mayor, but acknowledged speaking to his office about the vaccine mandate.

“I suggested they not only talk to me but to Major League Baseball, which I believe they did,” Mr. Levine said. He urged Mr. Adams’s team to make a decision before opening day, on April 7.

Mr. Alderson, speaking after the news conference, said a mandate that kept some of the team’s star players from getting on the field would have had steep economic repercussions.

Star players attract more people to the ballpark,” Mr. Alderson said. “I do believe that were we to play with a less than full complement of players, then it would have an impact on the number of people who would come to the ballpark and the number of people who have to be supported by all of our vendors, guest services, the local businesses and such.”

Mr. Levine and Mr. Alderson on Thursday declined to divulge precisely how many of their teams’ players remain unvaccinated, citing privacy clauses in the new collective bargaining agreement.

The Mets star pitcher Jacob deGrom has been reticent about his vaccination status; the team last year was one of six in Major League Baseball that did not reach an 85 percent vaccination level, a threshold that eased some pandemic-related restrictions.

Aaron Judge, the Yankees star outfielder, has likewise refused to divulge his vaccination status; the team’s manager, Aaron Boone, said two weeks ago that the Yankees still had a “few guys, at least, who are not vaccinated.”

The mayor’s decision reverberated beyond the sports world and into the political spectrum. Lee Zeldin, who is running for governor on the Republican line, said the mayor’s action bolstered the party’s argument for getting rid of the vaccine mandate entirely.

Adrienne Adams, the current Council speaker and a Democrat, said the move smacked of “inequity” and warned that the mayor was sending “increasingly ambiguous messages” about public health at a time when the coronavirus case count is rising.

Jay Varma, the former health adviser for Mr. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, warned that the move opened the city up to legal action on the grounds that the remaining mandate is “arbitrary and capricious.”

And not everyone is following the mayor’s lead in dropping vaccine mandates. Some of the city’s major performing arts organizations and presenters — including Broadway theaters and the Metropolitan Opera — intend to continue to require vaccinations for performers based in the city.

Even as he lifted the mandate, Mr. Adams said that his position on Mr. Irving’s vaccination status remained unchanged.

Kyrie, you should get vaccinated,” Mr. Adams said. “Nothing has changed. Get vaccinated.”

Lola Fadulu and Julia Jacobs contributed reporting.

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