A majority of Leesburg Town Council members blocked an effort to rescind its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for town employees during a Tuesday night meeting that featured a large crowd of people opposed to the measure.
Dozens turned out to council chambers Nov. 9 to share their concerns about the council’s recently passed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all of its full- and part-time employees, along with most of its board and commission members. Only exempt from the mandate are members of the town’s Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals as those are creations of state statute and grounds for removal of members of those bodies are set forward in state code, according to Public Information Officer Betsy Arnett.
Council members Suzanne Fox and Kari Nacy were the only ones to object to the vaccine mandate when it was adopted Oct. 12. Two weeks ago, Fox indicated that she wanted a motion placed on this week’s meeting agenda to rescind that action. At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Neil Steinberg put forward a motion to adopt the meeting agenda, without action on the motion to rescind the mandate. All except Fox and Nacy supported that motion, which blocked the reversal effort.
Many speakers had turned out to Tuesday’s meeting to encourage the council to rescind the Oct. 12 action, and took umbrage with the council choosing not to discuss the matter at all.
Resident Chris Rohland called the decision “gutless.”
“Nothing infuriates people more than seeing a body of government act irrationally and illogically,” he said.
Rohland went on to challenge the council over the mandate, saying the council lacked the data to enforce such rules on its employees and noted that the recently published Occupational Safety and Hazard Association’s Emergency Temporary Standard related to COVID-19 and the vaccines had already faced legal challenges.
Keith Reeve, a member of the town’s Planning Commission, said he was “irate” over the decision to remove the motion to rescind.
“I’m not quite sure who should be more embarrassed—the five of you that voted to rescind this or myself for having you represent me on Town Council,” he said.
Paul Coyer noted that, ironically, the resolution to appoint him to the Thomas Balch Library Advisory Commission came on the same night the council acted on the vaccine mandate. A local historian, he said his attempt to serve the community was being thwarted by that action.
“It’s extremely short-sighted because you are losing vital talent you could’ve drawn upon,” he said.
Longtime town planner Lee Phillips, who is now working for the town on a part-time basis after retiring following 33 years of service, said he wanted to speak up for the town’s unvaccinated employees, many of whom he characterized as “mid-stream people, halfway through their careers.”
“I simply wouldn’t want to be in their shoes,” he said.
Phillips said he wouldn’t be offended if the town decided to let him go in light of his decision to forego a vaccination.
“I don’t want to be a threat to anybody, any employee, anyone from the public. I don’t think I am. If anybody does and you let me go there’s absolutely no hard feelings. It’s just God telling me it’s my time to move on,” he said.
Employees and impacted board and commission members have until Jan. 11 to receive both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Since the council adopted the mandate Oct. 12, three part-time employees and one commission member have resigned because of the mandate, according to Arnett.
The potential impact on staffing for the town government has been an argument made by those against the mandate as a reason not to enforce it on the town’s hundreds of employees. Ahead of the council’s vote on the mandate, several members of the Leesburg Police Department spoke during the petitioners section of a council meeting to state their objections to the mandate, and to alert council members that many of their coworkers indicated they would leave the force rather than comply with the mandate. Not long after that meeting, a letter to the council signed by several members of the police department stated otherwise, that the department would not lose significant staff and many would indeed comply.
With two months remaining to comply with the mandate, initial indications are that the majority of the town staff is already vaccinated against COVID-19.
A recent staff survey was presented to the council Monday. With 99% of the town’s 351 employees responding to the survey, 275, or 78%, indicated they were already fully vaccinated. Eight full-time employees are partially vaccinated. Of the 65, or 18%, of full-time employee respondents that are not vaccinated, 25 responded they would be seeking either a religious or medical exemption, and an additional 12 said they intended to comply with the vaccine mandate. An additional 25 full-time employees indicated they were undecided on whether they would comply, and three stated they would not comply.
Eighty-three percent of the town’s 391 part-time employees responded to the survey. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they were already fully vaccinated and 1% are partially vaccinated. Of the 40 unvaccinated part-time employee respondents, 26 said they would be seeking either a religious or medical exemption for the vaccine. Six stated an intention to be vaccinated, another six were undecided, and two said they would not comply with the mandate.
Of the town’s 77 board and commission members, exempting the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, 64 indicated they were already fully vaccinated, with only one respondent stating he or she was unvaccinated and undecided on whether to comply.
Following the meeting, Fox said would try to place a motion to rescind the vaccine mandate on the next council meeting agenda. She said as more data becomes available, the chosen policy will become less desirable. Regarding the council majority’s decision to not have a debate on rescinding the vaccine mandate motion, Fox said she wasn’t surprised.
“What’s sad is that I expected that my colleagues on the council would pull something like this. I can’t say I blame them. If I were in their shoes, I know I certainly would not want to have to defend this problematic policy again,” she said. “But as for me, when it comes to individual liberty, I’ll go to the mat … especially when bad policy threatens the livelihoods of good people. It was encouraging that so many people came to speak against the mandate. However, I’ve received countless communications from town employees explaining why they are so scared to speak out. That disturbs me.”