New York City, Microsoft, Tyson Foods and the U.S. auto industry joined a cascading number of state and local governments and major employers Tuesday that are taking a hard line against both the surging delta variant and the holdouts who have yet to get vaccinated.
"The goal here is to convince everyone that this is the time. If we're going to stop the delta variant, the time is now. And that means getting vaccinated right now," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in announcing that New York will demand people show proof of COVID-19 vaccination at indoor restaurants, shows and gyms.
The hard-line measure — the first such step taken by a big U.S. city — goes into effect in mid-August. Vaccination cards or state and city apps will be accepted as proof of inoculation.
Meanwhile, meat and poultry giant Tyson Foods said it will require all of its approximately 120,000 U.S. employees to get the shot over the next three months. Microsoft will demand that its roughly 100,000 U.S. employees — as well as visitors and others — show proof of vaccination starting in September.
And an estimated 150,000 unionized workers at the big three U.S. automakers will have to go back to wearing masks starting Wednesday, while nonunion Toyota, with a U.S. workforce of about 36,000, said it will do likewise at most of its sites across the country.
In a surge driven by the highly contagious mutant version of the virus, COVID-19 cases across the U.S. have increased sixfold over the past month to an average of more than 85,000 per day, a level not seen since mid-February. Deaths have climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 254 per day to 386.
Florida has more people now in the hospital with COVID-19 than at any other time during the outbreak — over 11,500. Louisiana reported an all-time high of more than 2,100 hospital patients with the virus, most of them unvaccinated. Both states' vaccination rates are below the national average.
"You're talking and laughing with the patient and then you may walk out of the room, and then maybe an hour or two later you're walking into that room with a crash cart because their condition is deteriorating that fast," said Penny Ceasar, who handles admissions at Westside Regional Medical Center near Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Amid the growing alarm over the way the virus is storming back, vaccinations across the country have begun to tick up slightly in recent weeks, reaching more than a half-million per day on average, but are still far below the peak of 3.4 million per day in April.
Seventy percent of the nation's adults have received at least one shot, and nearly 61% are fully vaccinated — well short of where President Joe Biden wanted the U.S. to be by this point.
Experts say the vaccine is still highly effective at preventing serious illness and death from the delta variant.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is running for reelection next year while eyeing a 2024 presidential bid, doubled down Tuesday as the state again broke its record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, insisting that the spike will ease soon and that he will not impose any business restrictions or mask mandates. He encouraged people to get vaccinated.
"We are not shutting down," DeSantis said. "We are going to have schools open. We are protecting every Floridian's job in this state. We are protecting people's small businesses."
President Joe Biden endorsed New York City's move while criticizing policies in states like Florida and Texas — both led by Republicans — that block mask or vaccine requirements.
"If you're not going to help, at least get out of the way of people trying to do the right thing," Biden said.
The auto industry's decision to mask up again was made by representatives from General Motors, Ford, the parent company of Chrysler, and the United Auto Workers union, and it applies even to employees who have been vaccinated. The move comes just under a month after vaccinated autoworkers were allowed to shed their masks.
As for Tyson, Donnie King, CEO of the Springdale, Arkansas, company, said in a memo to employees that the vaccine requirement is needed to overcome persistent hesitancy to get the shots.
"We did not take this decision lightly. We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated — today, under half of our team members are," King wrote.
In New York, Sean Ogs, manager of the Woodside Cafe in Queens, said he was "floored" when he heard the news about mandatory vaccinations for customers.
"We've already been in a struggle. I don't know how I'm going to deal with it," Ogs said. "It's going to be extra work. It'll make things impossible."
Debbie McCarthy, a regular at the Woodside Cafe who is unvaccinated, said she was turned away over the weekend from several establishments that had already begun requiring proof.
"I'm a little shocked they would do that," said McCarthy, who said she recovered from COVID-19 months ago and believes her antibodies will protect her from another infection. "Why are they so afraid of people who haven't been vaccinated? I think we should have a choice."