Despite protesters storming the San Jose City Council chambers on Tuesday evening to oppose a vaccine mandate for those who staff and attend large events at city-owned facilities, councilmembers voiced strong support for the mandate and unanimously approved it.
The vote, which came after a delay due to the disruption by protesters and then hours of public comment during which almost every single attendee in-person and online opposed the proposal, means those who attend and staff events with 50 people or more at city facilities must be fully vaccinated to participate. A negative COVID-19 test is not an acceptable substitute.
When asked, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said the reason for that is efficiency and safety.
“We’re trying to implement something that is easy, that people clearly understand,” Liccardo said. “And because, frankly … the pathway for us to get through this pandemic safely, is to get as many people vaccinated as possible. And we need to do all we can to encourage vaccination.”
But for protesters, the new vaccine mandate is a form of discrimination and a violation of their rights. Many threatened to recall councilmembers who voted in favor of it.
Essentially, the meeting Tuesday was a conversation about who has the right to do what.
The city said it has the right to determine how to safely operate its facilities.
“For those who participated today and expressed concern, I’ll make it clear again that everybody is able to make the decisions on whether or not to get vaccinated,” Councilmember Raul Peralez said. “But we as a council are also able to decide how to safely operate our city facilities.”
But for protesters, they said they have a right to choose what goes into their body and shouldn’t be ostracized for that choice.
“If you want to get the vaccine, get the vaccine. If you don’t want to get the vaccine, don’t get the vaccine,” Becky Harris said. “Down the road, they’re going to cross another freedom line.”
She argued it sets a dangerous precedent to force or pressure residents to make certain medical decisions.
“I already got COVID in January and survived, I have the antibodies,” Harris, a San Martin resident, said.
She said she doesn’t understand why the vaccine is necessary for her, or other people in her position.
She, among many other protesters and public commenters, also asked, “if the vaccine is effective and (roughly) 85 percent of the county is vaccinated, why does it matter if I am vaccinated or not?”
As of Tuesday, the seven-day rolling average in Santa Clara County for COVID cases was 347 cases — a number not seen since late February of this year. Out of a county of 1.9 million people, that means 0.01 percent of the population has COVID over the last week.
But for unvaccinated people, the case rate was about 3 times higher, according to county data.
“COVID is certainly real, but the facts are constantly shifting and changing and that depends on what you listen to,” Harris said.
Since the pandemic’s start in March 2020, Santa Clara County has had 1,721 people die out of the 131,272 people who tested positive for COVID.
County death tolls changed in the Bay Area over the summer. In the beginning of July, Santa Clara County’s death toll shrunk by 22 percent because it redefined how it counted COVID-19 deaths.
Initially anyone who died and had the virus was counted as a COVID-19 death. Now death is counted in the death toll only if COVID is determined to be the or one of the causes of death.
Harris and others also disputed the notion that the vaccine is safe.
“I understand that Pfizer got FDA approval, but the FDA has approved a lot of things that later got recalled,” said Aaron Noriega, an employee with Santa Clara County.
He was one of the people who were outside of City Hall protesting ahead of the vote.
For Noriega, the vaccine could be one of those that do get recalled, and that’s not a chance he is willing to take.
“It’s just not fair that I am almost forced to get something that has not been tested extensively,” Noriega said. “We do not know the long-term impacts of this, it’s impossible to know.”
But Noriega isn’t absolutely anti-vaccine. When asked about children’s vaccination requirements to go to public school, Noriega said it was different from the council vote Tuesday.
“Those vaccines have been tested and true and tried and true. This is still in the experimental phase,” he said. “It takes years of trials to understand it.”
He said while the city is not mandating people get vaccinated, it essentially is by prohibiting unvaccinated folks from certain activities.
This was especially concerning to Noriega because part of Tuesday’s vote included that the City Council agendize a vote to require proof of vaccine for all who go to theaters, indoor dining, gyms, and other privately owned facilities that serve the general public.
“We don’t want to be excluded from society for that choice (to not be vaccinated),” Noriega said. “We don’t want to be treated like segregation days.”
And Noriega has already felt some of the impacts of the self-described segregation. Since he refuses to get vaccinated, he is at risk of losing his job with the county because of the recent mandate requiring employees to be inoculated.
“I don’t think they have the right to terminate me for simply not wanting to make a personal medical decision,” he said.
But councilmembers disagreed, stating that it was their right to determine how to safely operate their facilities, and in the context of potentially mandating vaccines for all indoor activities, the safety of their constituents.
“The first and primary function of government is to protect the health and safety of its residents,” Liccardo said. “Constitutionally in this country, the government can step in to protect public health in ways that are reasonable.”
The mayor said he understands and appreciates everyone’s concerns and frustrations but “we shouldn’t change our fundamental posture, which is we’ve got to follow the data we’ve got to follow the science.”
He said the vaccine mandate will help others feel safer, noting that many small business owners asked for this and some enacted that policy on their own.
“Obviously we do not want to shut down businesses,” Liccardo said. “So this is a reasonable and modest step to take to avoid the much more severe steps that the county and the state and the federal government have had to take in the past several months.”
The vaccine mandate approved will impact events held at SAP Center, San Jose McEnery Convention Center, San Jose Civic, the Center for the Performing Arts, California Theatre, Montgomery Theater, Hammer Theater, San Jose Museum of Art, The Tech Interactive and the Mexican Heritage Plaza.
Performers at those venues are not part of the vaccine mandate, Deputy City Manager Lee Wilcox said.
Wilcox also said the vaccine mandate will end when the public health emergency is repealed by the county.
Facility operators will also be given a grace period to create policies and programs to cooperate with the vaccine mandate, however it is unclear how long that grace period is.
In the meantime, the council said the city attorney will explore potential exemptions for the vaccine mandate, including medical and religious reasons.
Councilmember Sylvia Arenas said some concerns are valid, especially medical exemptions — those who are at risk if they take the vaccine.
“Just because someone is medically exempt from the vaccine, doesn’t mean they should be exempt from the Sharks game,” she said.
Liccardo conceded that some people may just have to miss out on events like hockey games at the SAP Center.
“Could this (vote) impact your ability to go to a hockey game … sure, but that is not a right given in the Constitution,” he said.
The mayor said San Jose will wait to look at data from San Francisco regarding COVID-19 case and vaccination rates and business revenue following its vaccine mandate in all indoor facilities before requiring it in their city.