NUREMBERG, Germany — Maria Liebermann came wrapped in fairy lights and waved a peace flag featuring a white dove. Martin Schmidt carried a Germany flag with the word RESIST scrawled across it in capital letters.
She is a self-described “eco-leftist.” He votes for the far-right Alternative for Germany. They disagree on everything from immigration to climate change, but on a recent Monday they marched side by side against the prospect of a general Covid vaccine mandate, shouting “Freedom!”
At the start of the pandemic, Germany was widely lauded as a model of unity in combating the coronavirus. A general trust in government encouraged citizens to comply with lockdowns, mask guidance and social distancing restrictions.
But that confidence in the authorities has steadily waned as the pandemic enters its third year and the fight has shifted toward vaccines, exposing deep rifts in German society and setting back efforts to combat Covid cases.
death threats from vaccine opponents in recent weeks.
In western Germany, the picture is more complicated.
A well-established tradition of homeopathy and natural cures has meant that a certain distrust of science and medicine has long been widely accepted in Germany’s middle class. Homeopathic doctors are commonplace, their services reimbursed by public health insurers. Germany’s new age esoteric industry — books, crystals, courses and the like — brings in an estimated 20 billion euros in revenue a year. Bavaria has the highest number of certified healers in the country.
unlikely coalition of protesters that includes naturalists, neo-Nazis and ordinary citizens alike. In China, authorities said that the 13 million residents in Xi’an will be allowed to travel in and out of the city, ending a 32-day lockdown.
Sophia, a 22-year-old who described herself as an “energetic healer,” and who was chatting to friends about an hour before the Nuremberg march, lamented the lack of opposition coming from parties on the left like the Greens that had traditionally challenged the status quo.
“Now they’re all backing the vaccine mandate,” she said. In the recent German election, Sophia, who declined to give her last name, supported the Basis party, a newly founded anti-vax party that garnered less than 3 percent of the vote.
Sophia comes from a family of doctors, and both her parents and her older brother got fully vaccinated and have urged her to do the same. But she is concerned that the vaccine was developed too fast, and doesn’t trust the government to disclose any serious side effects.
“My body is telling me that this is not a good idea,” she said. “I have a pretty good connection to my body.”
Her friends concurred. “It’s not about keeping us healthy, it’s about giving us all a QR code,” said Stefan, a 35-year-old father of five who advocates civil disobedience and also did not want his full name used. “They rule with fear. It’s a kind of tyranny.”
“Mainstream science is a religion,” he added.
Distrust in “mainstream science,” and mainstream politics, is one thing esoterics and the far right can agree on, said Mr. Grande of the WZB.
“The common denominator is distrust,” he said. “What unites these two very different groups is an alienation from traditional parties, from science, from media.”
Mr. Grande said the high levels of trust in government shown by Germans early in the pandemic, when nine in 10 backed the coronavirus restrictions, began to erode after the first lockdown as weariness with the pandemic set in.
The danger now, Mr. Grande said, is that the weekly contact with the far right on the streets normalizes that group for those who belong to what he calls “the distrustful center.” Both camps share a belief in conspiracy theories, which have the power to radicalize the movement beyond the fringes.
The vaccine mandate, which will be debated in parliament at the end of the month, is the decisive driver of the protests. “The debate about vaccine mandate is oil into the fire of the radicalization,” Mr. Grande said.
“I fear we have a difficult political phase ahead of us in this pandemic,” he said.
MADRID — Covid-19 infections were rising all across Spain, but the message from the country’s leader was clear: The government was not entering 2022 with the restrictions of 2020.
“The situation is different this time, and because of that, we’re taking different measures,” Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, said this week, adding that he understood his people had grown impatient with the pandemic and that he was “fully aware of the fatigue.”
Across Europe, that fatigue is as palpable as the dampened Christmas spirit. The fatigue of another named variant of the coronavirus and another wave of infections. The fatigue of another grim year watching New Year’s Eve gatherings get canceled or curtailed, one by one.
But along with the exhaustion, another feeling is taking root: that the coronavirus will not be eradicated with vaccines or lockdowns, but has become something endemic that people must learn to live with, maybe for years to come.
reducing the risk of severe disease and hospitalization, according to recent studies.
Pfizer and Merck. The new drugs, which can be taken at home with a doctor’s prescription, will be available to some Covid patients who are at higher risk of becoming severely ill.
“I worry a bit because we don’t know much about Omicron,” Susanne Sesterer, 63, a retiree in Hanover, Germany, said on Thursday as she was doing her last shopping before Christmas. “But how much worse can it get?”
Others were giving up.
Dorotea Belli, a 42-year-old Italian who has had two vaccine doses, said she would not go to a family gathering for Christmas and instead stay home in Rome. Many of her colleagues had tested positive for the virus, she said, and her children, 4 and 1, are not eligible for vaccination.
“They and I will miss my parents very much,” she said. “But I don’t want to bring Covid around, and even if my husband and I are vaccinated, who knows?”
Spain’s calculus on new restrictions is not only factoring in the all-important holidays, but also legal barriers that emerged after measures taken by the government in 2020.
In July, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government did not have the authority to impose the lockdown measures that began in March 2020, which restricted Spaniards from leaving their homes except for essential trips like food shopping. Instead, the judges said, the measures required a full parliamentary vote, which few see passing with a majority in the future given how controversial the previous restrictions were.
“The government has its hands tied now,” said Luis Galán Soldevilla, a law professor at the University of Córdoba.
Spain’s lighter measures announced on Thursday received criticism from some sectors, like the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration, a group that includes many health professionals.
“These measures don’t help much,” said Ildefonso Hernández, the group’s spokesman, saying limiting capacity indoors would be more effective. “It makes no sense that people walk the street with a mask and then take it off when they enter a bar.”
In Madrid, residents were charging ahead with their Christmas plans, despite the rising caseload and risks.
Fernando Sánchez, 55, a taxi driver, lost his mother and brother to Covid-19 six months ago. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to cancel his Christmas plans, which this year take place at the home of his in-laws, much as they had before the pandemic.
Antonio Jesús Navarro, 33, a software engineer, had been looking forward to spending Christmas with his girlfriend, who had traveled to Spain for the holidays from the United States. The two had not seen each other since before the pandemic began.
But then Mr. Navarro learned he had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus. The couple were isolating until he could get his own test results. He said he was frustrated with public messaging on how to stay safe from Omicron.
“Is an antigen test acceptable?” he said by telephone. “What happens if there are no symptoms?”
Hours later, Mr. Navarro called back to say he and his girlfriend had tested positive for Covid-19.
Nicholas Casey and José Bautista reported from Madrid, and Constant Méheut from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Raphael Minder from Geneva; Gaia Pianigiani from Rome; Christopher F. Schuetze from Hanover, Germany; and Léontine Gallois from Paris.
“You can’t really mandate booster shots yet,” he said. “It hasn’t been signed off on by any federal agency.”
JPMorgan Chase, whose decision to require vaccines is complicated by its sprawling retail operations across the United States, declined to comment on how the court’s most recent decision, along with the recent spike in cases, affects any plans to mandate vaccines. But the bank on Friday told its American employees who do not work in bank branches that “each group should assess who needs to come into the office, work priorities and who should revert to working from home on a more regular basis over the next few weeks.”
Walmart, which has mandated vaccines for mainly its corporate staff, also did not have any comment on broadening that requirement. Only 66 percent of its roughly 1.6 million U.S. employees are vaccinated, according to data compiled by the Shift Project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Legal questions about the OSHA rule are far from resolved. Immediately after the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled on Friday, several of the many plaintiffs who have challenged that rule asked the Supreme Court to intervene as part of its “emergency” docket. Appeals from the Sixth Circuit are assigned for review by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who under Supreme Court rules could in theory make a decision on his own but is more likely to refer the matter to the full Supreme Court. With the Labor Department now delaying full enforcement of its rule until Feb. 9, the justices have several weeks to ask for abbreviated briefings if they want them.
“Things are going back and forth literally in a matter of hours,” said Sydney Heimbrock, an adviser on industry and government issues at Qualtrics, who works with hundreds of clients on using the company’s software to track employee vaccination status. “The confusion stems from the on-again-off-again, is it a rule or isn’t it a rule? The litigations, appeals, reversing decisions and making decisions.”
Even the spread of Omicron hasn’t changed the position of some of the vaccine rule’s most ardent opponents. The National Retail Federation, one of the trade groups challenging the administration’s vaccine rule, is among those that have filed a petition with the Supreme Court. The group is in favor of vaccinations but has pushed for companies to get more time to carry out mandates. Still, even as it fights the administration’s rule, the federation is also holding twice weekly calls with members to compare notes on how to carry it out.
“There’s no question that the increased number of variants like Omicron certainly don’t make it less dangerous,” said Stephanie Martz, the group’s chief administrative officer and general counsel. “The legitimate, remaining question is, is this inherent to the workplace?”
But Judge Joan L. Larsen, a Trump appointee, dissented, arguing — as had the Fifth Circuit panel before her — that the agency had exceeded its legal authority.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know
Card 1 of 4
Pfizer vaccine in younger children. The company said that a low dose of its coronavirus vaccine did not produce an adequate immune response in 2- to 5-year-olds in ongoing clinical trials. The setback threatens to keep the vaccine from younger children for longer than many had hoped.
U.S. surpasses 800,000 deaths. This past week, Covid deaths in the United States surpassed 800,000 — the highest known number of any country. About 75 percent of those deaths have involved people 65 or older. One in 100 older Americans has died from the virus.
“The mandate is aimed directly at protecting the unvaccinated from their own choices,” Judge Larsen wrote. “Vaccines are freely available, and unvaccinated people may choose to protect themselves at any time. And because the secretary likely lacks congressional authority to force them to protect themselves, the remaining stay factors cannot tip the balance.”
All of the judges on the Fifth Circuit panel that had blocked the rule were conservative Republican appointees.
Challengers to the decision could appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which is controlled by a conservative bloc of six Republican appointees. (The Supreme Court this month refused to block New York’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus even when they cite religious objections.)
Challengers could also appeal to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Of its 16 sitting judges, five were appointed by Democrats and 11 were appointed by Republicans. (However, one of the Republican appointees, Judge Helene N. White, was originally a nominee of a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, before being renominated by a Republican one, George W. Bush, as part of a political deal.)
Conditions on the ground are rapidly changing, with new cases surging, apparently because of the more-infectious Omicron variant. The Justice Department last month warned that keeping the mandate from coming into effect “would likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day, in addition to large numbers of hospitalizations, other serious health effects and tremendous costs.”
The OSHA rule, alongside a separate requirement for federal contractors, has helped drive a number of large companies to announce a form of vaccine mandate, including Procter & Gamble, IBM and American Airlines. Others, like Tyson Foods and Google, introduced mandates on their own, in the face of the rising risk of the Delta variant.
LONDON — When Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain warned his country in a televised address on Sunday night that a tidal wave was coming, he might well have been talking about his own political future.
Mr. Johnson’s reference was to the latest coronavirus variant, which is sweeping across Britain and prompted him to ramp up a campaign to deliver 18 million booster shots by New Year’s Day. But the prime minister faces a different kind of deluge: from a rebellious Conservative Party, collapsing poll ratings and persistent questions about whether he or his staff flouted the very lockdown rules they imposed on the public.
The cascade of bad news is so extreme that it has raised questions about whether Mr. Johnson will even hang on to power until the next election. It is an ominous turn for a leader who has long defied political gravity, surviving scandals and setbacks that would have sunk many other politicians.
“It’s not the end for him, but I think it’s the beginning of the end,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to a Labour prime minister, Tony Blair. “The problem is that these crises have a cumulative effect. As soon as he ceases to be an asset and the party is facing an election, they’ll get rid of him.”
according to a poll by the market research firm Opinium. The opposition Labour Party has jumped to a lead over the Conservatives of nine percentage points, its largest advantage since February 2014.
“The thing that should most worry the prime minister is that while the Tory share has dipped quite clearly, the ratings for the prime minister have dipped even more,” said Robert Hayward, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and a polling expert. “The message is quite clear: that this is at the prime minister’s door.”
For Mr. Johnson, the rapidly spreading Omicron variant could help him politically, giving him a fresh public-health crisis around which to mobilize another national vaccination campaign. Britain’s rapid rollout of vaccines early in the year buoyed the government, though the pace fell off later in the summer, and Britain’s rate of fully vaccinated people now trails those of France, Italy and Portugal.
There was anecdotal evidence on Monday that Mr. Johnson’s urgent call for booster shots had resonated with the public: People had booked more than 110,000 appointments by 9 a.m. on Monday morning, causing the National Health Service’s website to crash under the weight of the demand. Long lines formed outside vaccination sites, including one snaking around St. Thomas’s Hospital, across the river from Parliament in London.
recently likened Mr. Johnson to President Richard M. Nixon and accused his aides of lying consistently.
“There are several reasons for this,” Mr. Hodges wrote. “One is obviously Boris himself. As a former minister said: ‘He treats facts like he treats all his relationships — utterly disposable once inconvenient.’”
resigned in a flap over his outside lobbying activities. Oddsmakers now expect the Tories to lose the seat to the Liberal Democrats.
That would be a demoralizing setback for both Mr. Johnson and his party; those are the type of working-class voters who swept Mr. Johnson to power and whom he needs to hold on to if he wants to win again in the next election.
“The Tories are more willing to get rid of their leaders than the other political parties: We do it much more quickly and ruthlessly,” Mr. Hayward said. “But the loss of support is attritional; it isn’t over one particular event.”
LONDON — With cases of the Omicron variant doubling every three days and the government doing an about-face on restrictions it had long resisted, Britain is bracing for a new coronavirus surge, unsure if it will be a relatively minor event or a return to the dark days of earlier pandemic waves.
So far, the number of Omicron cases — 817 confirmed by Thursday, though officials say the real figure is likely much higher — is small compared with the daily average of 48,000 new coronavirus cases overall. But the government’s Health Security Agency warned that if the recent growth rate continues, “we expect to see at least 50 percent of Covid-19 cases to be caused by the Omicron variant in the next two to four weeks.”
Early evidence in Britain backs up tentative findings elsewhere, notably in South Africa, where the heavily mutated new variant is already widespread: It appears to be the most contagious form of the virus yet, a previous case of Covid-19 provides little immunity to it, and vaccines seem less effective against it. But it also seems to cause less severe illness than earlier variants.
Britain’s experience with Omicron may be a harbinger of what others can expect. Until now, it has been looser about social restrictions than many other nations in Western Europe, and Britain ordinarily has extensive travel to and from South Africa, so it could be the first wealthy country to be hit hard by Omicron. It also has one of the world’s most robust systems for sequencing viral genomes, so it can identify and track new variants earlier and more thoroughly than other countries.
opposed stricter controls that have been adopted around Europe, which was suffering through its biggest coronavirus wave so far before Omicron appeared.
Times analysis shows how infrastructure issues and the public’s level of willingness to get vaccinated may pose larger obstacles than supply.
“It’s not going to take long before it becomes obvious in other places, but it’s clearer earlier here,” Dr. Barrett said. “I think other countries should basically assume the same thing is happening.”
The genomic surveillance could also give Britain a head start in determining how severe Omicron cases are, though there will be a lag because it takes days or weeks for a person who gets infected to become seriously ill.
“It is increasingly evident that Omicron is highly infectious and there is emerging laboratory and early clinical evidence to suggest that both vaccine-acquired and naturally acquired immunity against infection is reduced for this variant,” Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the Health Security Agency, said in a statement.
Experts fear what that could mean for Britain’s already struggling National Health Service.
“A lot of staff have left or are burnt out,” Dr. English said, after months of dealing with the strains of the pandemic. “Now we’ve going to have another big hit — very likely — from Omicron. I am really, really sympathetic toward my poor colleagues working in clinical practice at the moment.”
said in a statement that the country had been having “increasingly high incidences of Covid-19 for some time,” adding that “health care workers are rightly worried about the impact the Omicron variant could have” on the health system’s ability to function if caseloads rise fast.
Some hospitals have already canceled elective care again, a strategy seen at the start of the pandemic to free up resources for treating coronavirus patients. Patients are already experiencing hourslong waits for ambulances as a result of the existing pressures on the system, Dr. Nagpaul added.
“While the number of Covid hospitalizations today is much lower than last winter, we must not risk complacency by ignoring the rapid doubling of Omicron cases every two to three days,” he said.
JOHANNESBURG — The detection of the Omicron variant in southern Africa signals the next stage of the battle against Covid-19: getting many more people inoculated in poorer nations where vaccines have been scarcest in order to deter new mutations from developing.
But while world leaders sometimes talk about this as if it were largely a matter of delivering doses overseas, the experience of South Africa, at least, hints at a far more complex set of challenges.
Like many poor countries, South Africa was made to wait months for vaccines as wealthier countries monopolized them. Many countries still do not have anywhere near enough vaccines to inoculate their populations.
The problems have not ended as shots began arriving in greater numbers.
Neglected and underfunded public health infrastructure has slowed their delivery, especially to rural areas, where storage and staffing problems are common.
turned away shipments of doses from Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson, worried that their stockpile of 16 million shots might spoil amid insufficient demand.
Dr. Saad Omer, a Yale University epidemiologist, and they have had a deeper effect.
have said. In several countries, fewer than half say they intend to get vaccinated.
sometimes-violent resistance in rural communities. Vaccine hesitancy rates there approach 50 percent among those who have not completed high school.In some parts of the country, more than a third of doses spoil amid the low demand.
Still, many are eager to be vaccinated. When doses first became widely available in South Africa earlier this year, a third of the country’s adults swiftly got inoculated, a pattern that is repeating elsewhere.
allegations of corruption amid last year’s lockdown, have heightened public unease.
“There’s a lack of confidence in the public health system’s ability to provide vaccines,” said Chris Vick, the founder of Covid Comms, a South African nonprofit group.
The group has been holding vaccine information sessions, but overcoming skepticism is not easy. After a session in the Pretoria township of Atteridgeville, one 20-year-old who attended said she had not been persuaded.
briefly pause delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, leading South Africa to delay its rollout to health care workers. Both countries decided to resume the shots after concluding that they were safe.
The South African government held regular briefings, but these were on television and in English, when radio remains the most powerful medium and most South Africans do not speak English as their mother tongue.
a recent study found. That is in part because of mistrust of the Black-led government, but also because American Covid conspiracists have found wide reach among white South Africans on social media, according to Mr. Vick of Covid Comms.
Covid pill from Merck for high-risk adults, the first in a new class of antiviral drugs that could work against a wide range of variants, including Omicron. The pill could be authorized within days, and available by year’s end.
The first modern, worldwide campaign, begun in 1959 against smallpox, provoked deep skepticism in parts of Africa and Asia, where it was seen as a continuation of colonial-era medical abuses. Some W.H.O. officials used physical force to vaccinate people, deepening distrust. The campaign took 28 years.
The effort to eradicate polio, which finally ramped up in poor countries in the 1980s and is still ongoing, has run into similar resistance. A study in the science journal Nature found that vaccine avoidance was highest among poor or marginalized groups, who believed that the health authorities, and especially Western governments, would never voluntarily help them.
In Nigeria in the early 2000s, amid a spike in religious tensions, unfounded rumors circulated that foreign health workers were using polio vaccines as cover to sterilize the country’s Muslim population. Boycotts and local bans led to a polio resurgence, with cases spreading to 15 other countries, as far as Southeast Asia.
survey by the Africa Center for Disease Control found that 43 percent of those polled believe Africans are used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials — a legacy of Western drug companies’ doing exactly this in the 1990s.
Even within their own borders, Western governments are struggling to overcome vaccine resistance. So it is hard to imagine them doing better in faraway societies where they lack local understanding.
Any appearance of Western powers forcing unwanted vaccines into African or Asian arms risks deepening the backlash.
“If the objective is to keep the U.S. and the rest of the world safe, it should be pretty obvious that the success of the domestic program depends on what happens internationally,” Dr. Omer said.
ROME — In a wrenchingly familiar cycle of tracking first cases, pointing fingers and banning travel, nations worldwide reacted Monday to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the piecemeal fashion that has defined — and hobbled — the pandemic response all along.
As here-we-go-again fear and resignation gripped much of the world, the World Health Organization warned that the risk posed by the heavily mutated variant was “very high.” But operating once again in a vacuum of evidence, governments chose approaches that differed between continents, between neighboring countries, and even between cities within those countries.
Little is known about Omicron beyond its large number of mutations; it will be weeks, at least, before scientists can say with confidence whether it is more contagious — early evidence suggests it is — whether it causes more serious illness, and how it responds to vaccines.
In China, which had been increasingly alone in sealing itself off as it sought to eradicate the virus, a newspaper controlled by the Communist Party gloated about democracies that are now following suit as Japan, Australia and other countries gave up flirting with a return to normalcy and slammed their borders shut to the world. The West, it said, had hoarded vaccines at the expense of poorer regions, and was now paying a price for its selfishness.
announced that government employees, health care workers and staff and students at most schools must be vaccinated by Jan. 22.
tied to a single soccer team — and Scotland reported six, while the numbers in South Africa continued to soar.
Experts warned that the variant will reach every part of the world, if it hasn’t already.
The leaders of the world’s top powers insisted that they understood this, but their assurances also had a strong whiff of geopolitics.
President Xi Jinping of China offered one billion doses of Covid vaccine to Africa, on top of nearly 200 million that Beijing has already shipped to the continent, during an address to a conference in Senegal by video link.
The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, boasted of China’s success in thwarting virus transmission, and said the West was now paying the price for its selfish policies. “Western countries control most of the resources needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic,” it wrote. “But they have failed to curb the spread of the virus and have exposed more and more developing countries to the virus.”
told France Inter radio on Monday that variants would continue to emerge unless richer countries shared more vaccines. “We need a much more systemic approach,” she said.
“zero Covid” strategy.
China has steadfastly kept a high wall against visitors from the rest of the world. Foreign residents and visa holders are allowed in only under limited circumstances, leading to concerns by some within the business world that Covid restrictions were leaving the country increasingly isolated.
Visitors must submit to two-week quarantines upon arrival and face potential limits on their movement after that. Movements are tracked via monitoring smartphone apps, which display color codes that can signal whether a person has traveled from or through an area with recent infections, triggering instructions to remain in one place.
In other parts of Asia, people are less focused on eradicating the virus than just surviving it.
“This news is terrifying,” said Gurinder Singh, 57, in New Delhi, who worried about his shop going under. “If this virus spreads in India, the government will shut the country again, and we will be forced to beg.”
Reporting was contributed by Declan Walsh from Nairobi, Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem, Carlos Tejada from Seoul, Sameer Yasir from Srinagar, India, Lynsey Chutel from South Africa, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Elian Peltier and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, Megan Specia from London, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin, Emma Bubola from Rome and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.
The world reacted with alarm on Friday to the highly mutated new coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa, as the United States, the European Union and nations across the globe imposed new travel restrictions, financial markets swooned and visions of finally emerging from the pandemic started to dim.
Just two days after the world learned of the variant, the World Health Organization officially labeled it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category — the first since the Delta variant, which emerged a year ago. The designation means that the variant has mutations that might make it more contagious or more virulent, or make vaccines and other preventive measures less effective — though none of those effects has yet been established.
suffered terribly when Covid first hit Europe early last year.
On Friday, Israel, Singapore, several European nations individually, and then the European Union as a whole, the United States and Canada followed the lead set by Britain on Thursday night, temporarily barring foreign travelers who have recently been in South Africa or any of several neighboring countries. As with past travel bans, countries are allowing their own citizens and permanent residents to return home if they test negative for the virus, with some requiring additional testing and quarantine after arrival.
fights over vaccines and social restrictions have grown increasingly harsh.
world’s highest case rates for their populations are all European — several of them about six times as high as the U.S. rate.
South Africa, whose last coronavirus wave peaked in July, has recently reported case rates far below the worldwide average. But last week the rate more than doubled from the week before.
Reporting was contributed by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Carl Zimmer, Lynsey Chutel and Nick Cumming-Bruce.
The holiday shopping season has arrived, and retailers are ringing it in by doing everything from cutting prices to stocking showrooms to lure back customers who stayed at home last year. What the biggest of them are not doing is the one thing the White House and many public health experts have asked them to: mandate that their workers be vaccinated.
As other industries with workers in public-facing roles, like airlines and hospitals, have moved toward requiring vaccines, retailers have dug in their heels, citing concerns about a labor shortage. And a portion of one of the country’s largest work forces will remain unvaccinated, just as shoppers are expected to flock to stores.
At the heart of the retailers’ resistance is a worry about having enough people to work. In a tight labor market, retailers have been offering perks like higher wages and better hours to prospective employees in hopes of having enough people to staff their stores and distribution centers. The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, has estimated that retailers will hire up to 665,000 seasonal workers this year.
held up in litigation, challenged by a number of lawsuits from a broad coalition of opponents, and could make its way to the Supreme Court. Court filings by the administration warn that blocking the rule would “likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day.”
have increased more than 20 percent over the past two weeks.
“It’s a pretty big ask, there’s no one denying that,” Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said of requiring vaccinations for retail employees. “But we’ve also tried a lot of other things to help people get vaccinated — and I think a mandate right now is what we need to get over that barrier.”
Walmart, the nation’s biggest private employer, declined to comment on the federation’s lawsuit or its plans for vaccinations or testing. A spokeswoman for Target said the company had “started taking the necessary steps to meet the requirements of the new Covid-19 rules for large companies as soon as the details were announced.”
Spokespeople for several retailers on the federation’s board, including Kohl’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Saks, declined to comment for this article.
have not required them for frontline workers, sharing concerns about challenges in hiring. But those workers, including about four million at stores, are among the most vulnerable. They interact frequently with the public and are less likely to be vaccinated themselves. Mandates at Tyson, United Airlines and several health care companies indicate that when faced with the prospect of losing their job, employees most frequently choose inoculation.
“We know vaccine requirements work,” said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the White House. “The federal government, the country’s largest employer, has successfully implemented its requirement in a way that has boosted vaccinations and avoids any disruptions to operations.”
The State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
A growing number of employers, universities and businesses are now issuing some form of a vaccine requirement. Here’s a closer look.
Still, companies mandating vaccines have faced protests or lawsuits. In some states legislation has been passed to impede it. Disney, for instance, paused a mandate for employees at Disney World in Florida after it became illegal for employers in the state to require workers to get the shot.
The panic and precautions tied to Covid-19 have played out at retail stores throughout the pandemic and ensnared their workers.
Guitar Center and Dillard’s to argue that they needed to stay open — and keep their employees coming in — despite the worsening public health crisis. Workers have been at the forefront of disputes around mask mandates and then mask enforcement. Retail chains like REI have been criticized for failing to inform employees about Covid cases in stores. Grocery store workers were not given priority access to vaccines in many states.
Target and Walmart, throughout the pandemic. And while they are still facing rising prices and supply chain strain, executives have indicated recently that pressure on staffing has waned.
“We feel really good about our staffing going into the holiday season,” Brian Cornell, Target’s chief executive, told CNBC last week. He added that the company’s retention numbers were “some of the strongest in our history,” which he attributed to perks and safety measures.
Retailers are betting that consumers will be comfortable shopping in stores, where foot traffic is already higher than in 2020, regardless of the industry’s efforts to fight the new vaccination and testing requirements. And for those who are concerned about the lack of vaccinations, the companies have bolstered their e-commerce operations and curbside pickup offerings in the past year, though in-store shopping often leads to more purchases and fewer returns.
When asked what Macy’s would tell concerned customers about shopping in stores, Mr. Gennette said: “What I would say is we encourage every one of our colleagues to be vaccinated and every colleague wears a mask in our stores and warehouses to protect themselves and others.”
imploring companies to move forward with the Labor Department rules.
“The hope was to provide some perspective for business leaders to remind them this is not a political issue,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who was one of the signatories. Dr. Jha said it was important for companies in all industries to follow the rule, noting that retailers play a particular role, given the nature of their employee base. He said those measures should be put in place during the holiday season — not after — especially as that is when case numbers are expected to rise.
“Do they really want to be superspreader places during the holiday season and be responsible for their employees getting sick and for their employees spreading it to customers?” Dr. Jha said.