Vaccine Mandates
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DISCLAIMER: This article was written in 2021 and has not been updated. For more up to date information about small business funding products and options, please browse our recent articles.

If you live in the New York City Metropolitan area, odds are your commercial breaks have been overpowered by the “Key to NYC” memo. It serves as a public service announcement for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new rule that those who are twelve years old or older must show proof of vaccination in order to participate in indoor fitness, dining, and entertainment, beginning September 13. breaks down what these three categories entail, and unsurprisingly, they include many popular types of small businesses: gyms, fitness centers and studios, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and clubs, any grocery store with indoor dining options, movie theatres, bowling alleys, concert venues, and recreation centers.

Other Mandates

New York City’s vaccine requirement was followed shortly after by other city governments placing their own mandates. As of August 20 (according to ) San Francisco’s Mayor, London Breed, updated his Safer Return Together Health Order by requiring proof of vaccination in order to enter similar small business entities, including bars, clubs, restaurants, gyms, large indoor venues, and any place that serves food indoors.

Rumblings that Los Angeles will follow as the second city coincides with a recent Los Angeles Times article that forewarns readers that their vaccination card will similarly serve as their tickets into indoor establishments like bars, clubs, and wineries. announced that New Orleans’ Mayor, LaToya Cantrell, altered the “Mayoral Proclamation to Further Promulgate Emergency Orders During the State of Emergency Due to COVID-19” in late August, by setting a requirement for customers to show proof of at least one COVID-19 vaccination dose or a negative PCR test taken within the past 72 hours.

While these citywide mandates have taken effect, President Joe Biden also passed an executive order on September 9 that requires all federal employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, with a few key exceptions. The details of this executive order can be viewed here. As part of the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 Action Plan, the federal government is also taking action to mandate that over 17 million healthcare workers be vaccinated. This will apply to workers at hospitals and other health care facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid.

Biden has also been working with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require all private companies with one hundred employees or more to ensure that their employees are either fully vaccinated or undergo regular testing.

What Biden’s Plan Could Mean for Small Businesses

In the event that these components of Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan take effect, the United States Chamber of Commerce provides several tips and words of advice for small business owners who could be impacted by these new mandates:

Encourage vaccinations

The United States Chamber of Commerce recommends business owners advocate for their employees to get vaccinated in order to ensure unity from the top down, as well as establishing trust between owners and their employees.

Incentives like payments of cash or paid time off for vaccination appointments can further promote employees to get vaccinated.

Offer a vaccination clinic

The United States Chamber of Commerce also suggests that businesses (especially those who are going to mandate vaccinations) should hold vaccination clinics.

Create clear policies for unvaccinated employees

Although Biden’s plan will include mandated weekly testing, other policies like mask-wearing, social distancing, and restricting travel can be put in place to ensure clear guidelines for employees. Whatever guidelines you settle on, make sure you communicate them clearly. That way, there is no confusion over what is being expected of your employees.

You can terminate employees who refuse to get vaccinated if you choose

The Chamber of Commerce’s publication makes it clear that terminating employees if they do not get vaccinated does not violate HIPAA and is clearly supported by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Bottom Line

Truth be told, COVID-19 has dominated media outlets for almost 2 years now. And while there is such thing as media fatigue, it is important as a small business owner to understand what these mandates mean for your business.

Frequently Asked Questions

Because you will be likely fielding questions or participating in discussions with customers, it is important to know the facts in relation to your city:

What is proof of vaccination?

A customer may show their CDC vaccination card, as well as a photo or photocopy of the card. Other methods are particular to the city or state (New York CitySan Francisco, Los AngelesNew Orleans).

For New York, this includes New York State’s Excelsior Pass, the NYC COVID Safe App, or an NYC Vaccination Record.

For San Francisco, this includes digital vaccine cards from the following providers: Bindle, CLEAR HealthPass, CommonPass, VaxYes, UCHealth-Colorado, and UCSF MyChart.

According to the Los Angeles Times, this includes the California Department of Public Health COVID-19 vaccination digital record and the California Immunization Registry (CAIR).

And for New Orleans, this includes the LA Wallet App, a vaccine trial record, or another official record issued by another state, country, or the World Health Organization.

Note that your customer’s proof of vaccination must be supplemented with a photo I.D. unless the app the customer is using already includes one.

Can a customer just tell me they are vaccinated?

The answer to this is no, according to the guidelines of New York City, San Francisco, and New Orleans.

Does a negative COVID-19 test work in replacement of a vaccination card?

The answer to this is no, according to the guidelines of New York City and San Francisco. A negative PCR test will work in replacement according to the guidelines of New Orleans.

Can a customer still come into my business after receiving only received one dose of their vaccination?

The answer to this question is no, according to the guidelines of San Francisco, and the answer is yes, according to the guidelines of New York City and New Orleans.

Why Are We Now Hearing About Vaccination Mandates?

As noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate into new variants. By now, you’ve likely heard of the Delta variant, which is classified as a highly contagious strain of COVID-19 responsible for 99 percent of the cases in America. There is also a new strain, the Mu variant, noted in a summary by the CDC as a “Variant of Interest.”

The CDC reports that increases in the transmission of the Delta strain are prevalent in areas with low vaccination rates. Furthermore, vaccinations have proven to significantly reduce the spread of the virus.

With this in mind, these populated cities are using vaccine mandates as a way to curb the spread of the virus.

As a small business owner, you should be aware of these public health facts. These trends are the reason large cities have begun vaccination mandates.

New York City Commission on Human Right’s Guide 

Now, New York City faces the spotlight, as the nation watches how its Key to NYC initiative is holding up. There is no doubt that COVID-19 has morphed from an international health epidemic into a simultaneous, daily social barrier. So, the New York City Commission on Human Rights prepared a guide for small business owners on how to address vaccination mandates while avoiding discrimination.

Although this is only applicable to New York City businesses, it is a good guide for nationwide small businesses owners, especially in the event that your city’s government decides to implement similar restrictions.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • You must check everyone for vaccination, as this is the only way to avoid discrimination. It is important to recognize possible discriminatory behaviors. Regardless of race, religion, age, disability, or national origin you must examine proof of vaccination all the same.
  • You must provide a reasonable accommodation for those that cannot prove their vaccination status due to a disability unless it causes a direct threat to your customers. Reasonable accommodation can mean many things, according to the New York City Commission on Human Rights guide: taking food or beverages to go, offering virtual classes, or offering customer service on the phone.
  • Do not ask for proof of a disability. If the customer tells you that their disability prevents them from showing proof of vaccination, the guide recommends engaging in a “cooperative dialogue, or a good-faith discussion” to find a compromise. If they reveal to you that they cannot show proof of vaccination due to reasons unrelated to their disability, you are not required to provide a reasonable accommodation.
  • The mandate applies to employees too. Similar to the way you are advised to offer reasonable accommodation to customers, you must also offer reasonable accommodations to your employees. Possible solutions are noted as such: having the employee work remotely, take a leave of absence, or work in isolation.

It is important to have a discussion with your employers,

  • It is still acceptable for unvaccinated individuals 12 years or older, to be indoors for a quick visit, like ordering takeaway or using the restroom.
  • According to the NYC Frequently Asked Questions sheet, there is a $1000 fine for any New York City business that does not comply with the Key to NYC policies.

The sheet also notes that this fine is subject to increase for small businesses that are repeated offenders.

How to Deal with What you See in the Media

Throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a mass spread of misinformation. No matter what news outlet you tune in to, make sure you continue to monitor the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker. As the website states, its daily update at 8 PM provides accurate and timely information about the pandemic every day, with comprehensive diagrams and maps to show for it.

Important Things to Remember

It is important to understand that the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented time (though this phrase seems overused, it holds true). Practicing compassion can make all the difference.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Forbes released an article that showed a positive correlation between empathetic leadership and employees’ positive behaviors, productivity, and well-being. This led them to suggest that “compassion lowers heart rates and blood pressures while strengthening immune systems.”

This is why engaging in good faith conversations with empathy, tolerance, and nonjudgment can make all the difference to customers. And during these conversations, please consider that some communities may not have the resources to vaccinate everyone. Avoid discussing the politics of the vaccination, and focus only on the mandates you are required to follow.

It is also important to keep yourself safe. In business, the coined phrase “the customer comes first” is often true, but in the midst of the pandemic, you must also consider your own health and wellbeing. Conversations about vaccination policies, though tough, are a necessity in order for you to continue safely running your business.


The New York City Commission of Human Rights offers free workshops for business owners here.

For those interested in learning more about facilitating these discussions on reasonable accommodation, New York City’s Center for Creative Conflict resolution offers the webinar entitled Vaccination Mandate Conflict Resolution Training for Businesses.

The City of New Orleans also provides free online resources such as Protecting the Safety and Health of Workers and Patrons training.

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