All Town of Leesburg employees will have until mid-January to be vaccinated against COVID-19, under a policy adopted by the Town Council on Tuesday night. Employees with medical or religious exemptions will be permitted to continue in their positions, but will be required to undergo weekly testing for the virus.
The requirements are to take effect within 90 days of the Oct. 12 vote.
The mandate, put forward by Councilmen Zach Cummings and Neil Steinberg, passed on a 4-3 vote. Councilwomen Suzanne Fox and Kari Nacy said that vaccinations should be left as individual decisions. Councilman Ara Bagdasarian advocated a policy that would align with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration policies, which currently recommend that large employers require testing for workers who are not fully vaccinated.
Town Manager Kaj Dentler estimated there were 200 unvaccinated employees. An initial motion would have had those with exemptions be required to pay for their own testing, but staff would go on to clarify that the municipality was required to pay for such testing. The council would go on to amend its motion.
Dentler recommended the town join the testing program being established by the county government, which has adopted a weekly testing requirement for unvaccinated employees. That program is expected to be up and running by late November. Through the end of the year, FEMA will cover the costs, about $125 per test. Starting in January, FEMA will require localities to cover 25% of the cost. The Town Council’s motion stated the unvaccinated employees would be required to pay those fees.
Those supporting the mandate said it was needed to better protect staff members and members of the public who come in contact with them—whether being pulled over by a police officer or paying a utility bill in Town Hall.
“I believe that our duty is to the people, to the public,” Cummings said. “And that means folks should not have to worry when they are interacting with people who work for the Town of Leesburg whether their safety is at risk.”
Mayor Kelly Burk said the virus continues to be a danger to the community, noting she attended the funeral of an unvaccinated friend on the previous day. “We are not safe as long as we continue to look at ourselves as individuals. … We have a pandemic that is all around us and if we don’t do something, we’re going to be here two years from now still wearing masks.”
In opposing the policy, Fox pointed to the area’s high vaccination rate and low infection levels, saying Loudoun County was among the safest places in the country. She noted the area was not under a health emergency declaration that would perhaps justify such extraordinary action. Following the meeting, she published her entire statement on her official Facebook page, as she was not given additional time during the meeting to share her remarks.
Nacy suggested an alternative to the mandate could be to offer incentives, such as bonuses or extra time off, for those choosing to get vaccinated. She said she was worried about losing good town workers, especially police officers who are difficult to recruit train and retain.
Concerns about the impact a vaccine mandate could have on the Police Department have been central to the debate. During the council’s previous discussion of the proposal, several officers spoke publicly to oppose the measure. Last week, eight other officers wrote the council expressing support for a mandate.
The officers pointed out that there are already a number of vaccines that are mandatory by the town for their employment and that adding the COVID-19 vaccine to that list “will not dismantle the police department as it was described to you on Sept. 28.”
“In fact, if an argument must be made, it should be that a vaccine mandate would save officers’ lives as COVID-19 was the leading cause of law enforcement deaths in the first six months of 2021,” the letter stated.
Another point of debate Tuesday night was how quickly to impose the requirement.
Dentler said it would take 30 days to craft the policy and then 90 days to allow employees to comply—a timeline that would push enforcement to February. The council settled on a 90-day deadline to complete both steps.
While some sought to move as quickly as possible, Vice Mayor Marty Martinez said he didn’t want the employees who may face termination for noncompliance to have to face that decision during the December holidays.