Conservatives have collectively gone wild with rage and indignation over President Joe Biden’s new vaccine mandate for private businesses, which will require large employers to make sure their workers have either been inoculated or get tested weekly. In the right’s telling, the coming rule is a paternalistic—even tyrannical—imposition on American freedoms, a step down the road to biomedical serfdom that calls for mass civil disobedience, and an offense that has some of Congress’ leading nutters bellowing on Twitter that “unvaccinated lives matter.”
So it seems like a good moment to point out the very simple reasons why Biden’s move is in fact entirely sensible, especially since parts of the media seem intent on framing the whole thing as just another round in America’s culture war rather than an actual matter of life and death. (Here’s looking at you, Mike Allen.)
Let’s start with the most obvious and work from there.
Reason No. 1: People Are Dying
You really can’t emphasize this one enough. The United States has experienced a staggering 650,000 casualties from COVID-19, with about 1,500 Americans still succumbing to the disease every day. Thanks to the vaccines, we have the power in our hands to mostly end these needless deaths, yet whether out of misguided fear over the shot’s side effects or sheer pig-headed stubbornness, 19 percent of Americans say they will still refuse to get vaxxed, according to the latest survey from NPR, PBS, and Marist. (The Kaiser Family Foundation’s polling pegs the hard noes at 17 percent.) At some point, for the sake of public health and our collective psychological well-being, someone has to force these Americans’ hand.
If the pandemic were only impacting the unvaccinated population, there might be some slim argument for just throwing up our hands and saying go with God (or Joe Rogan). But that’s just not the case. While the vast majority of people getting critically ill and dying from COVID are unvaccinated, about 14 percent of hospitalizations and 16 percent of deaths in late June and early July were among those who suffered breakthrough infections. Meanwhile, hospitals in the hardest hit areas are canceling procedures and running out of beds in their intensive care units, putting other, non-COVID patients at risk. Pediatric cases are also rising while kids still aren’t eligible for shots. Because having the shot reduces the chances that you’ll catch or spread COVID, deciding whether to get vaccinated is simply not just a matter of personal well-being.
Reason No. 2: The Economy Is Still Struggling
In August, America’s economic recovery appeared to hit a wall, with employers adding a piddly 235,000 jobs. The badly battered leisure and hospitality industry added precisely zero, according to the government. This screeching halt occurred despite the fact that many states had already cut off the extra unemployment benefits that many business owners were convinced had kept Americans from looking for work. At this point, pretty much everyone acknowledges that the delta wave is what’s holding back the economy, as Americans have once again cut down on activities outside their home, and many workers remain hesitant to go back to service-industry jobs. The situation is not nearly so bad as the devastation we witnessed last year. But once cases go down again, the economy can return to an improving course. There is simply no reason to sacrifice prosperity in order to humor the deeply misguided medical beliefs of a minority of American adults.
Reason No. 3: We’ve Given People Enough Time
It’s possible that, over time, more unvaccinated Americans will decide that, actually, they aren’t worried about being microchipped by Bill Gates. Moreover, delta—which already seems to be cresting in some states—could wane on its own thanks to a combo of vaccinations and natural immunity. But at some point, having patience for the holdouts means trading away others’ health, lives, and their simple ability to live a normal day-to-day existence without having to worry about, say, whether the heavy-breathing guy watching Assassin’s Creed, of all random movies, near you on the plane is exhaling a fog of COVID (speaking from personal experience here). It’s been long enough. There’s a fully FDA-approved shot. The fact that people can at least in theory opt for testing instead of a vaccine is enough of a concession. (In fact, one could argue that this isn’t a vaccine mandate at all, but a testing mandate with an exemption for those who’ve gotten a jab. Such tyranny.)
Reason No. 4: Businesses Want Their Employees Vaccinated but Have Been Too Scared to Mandate It
Big businesses have clearly wanted their workers to get vaccinated, both because nobody likes it when employees get sick and can’t show up for work, but also because severe COVID cases drive up the cost of health insurance. Delta Air Lines, which has announced it will start charging employees a surcharge on their premiums if they don’t get vaccinated, recently shared that the average hospital stay cost them $50,000. But while some major companies have gone ahead with mandates, others have been scared due to fears that employees will quit at a time that it’s very difficult to hire. Their fears might be exaggerated, but they are not irrational: According to the Washington Post’s polling, 42 percent of unvaccinated workers say they’d quit if their employer attempted to force them to get a shot. It’s a dumb collective-action problem, where one business won’t act because others haven’t. A federal mandate is an obvious way to solve a collective-action problem.
Reason No. 5: Most Americans Support Vaccine Mandates
Biden’s move makes sense on the merits. But for all the caterwauling on the right, it may make sense politically. Multiple polls have found that a majority of Americans support requiring people be vaccinated if they want to be in certain public spaces. In a survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about half of Americans backed mandates for people working in-person at their office, while only 23 percent were opposed. This is not exactly shocking since 75 percent of Americans have already had at least one dose. The anti-vaxxers are just a loud, obnoxious minority. Yes, the politics of this could get more complicated, since Biden’s move will likely polarize the issue more along partisan lines. Americans also don’t seem to have entirely coherent views on this issue—one poll by Ipsos found that 62 percent of Americans supported businesses requiring workers to get vaccinated, but 62 percent also opposed workers losing their jobs over the issue. But it fundamentally would have been cowardly for Biden not to act, and instead wait around while anti-vaxxers and a conservative misinformation machine undermined the country and his presidency when most Americans appeared to be with him. The big question is whether the media will focus on the enraged minority or the quieter majority that’s mostly seething at their neighbors who refuse to get a shot.