Rally at Balboa Park protests vaccine mandate for city workers

Local

SAN DIEGO — A rally featuring a few hundred protesters, including police officers, firefighters and lifeguards, was held in Balboa Park Friday afternoon to demonstrate against San Diego’s impending vaccine mandate for city workers.

The event started around 3 p.m. in the park’s Organ Pavilion. It was organized by the group ReOpen San Diego, which has been active for over a year in protesting the city and county’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic. FOX 5 has a crew at the rally for further reports.

Mayor Todd Gloria has reiterated this week that his administration will move forward with the requirement, which says all city employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 1 as a condition of employment.

“The way out of this pandemic is through vaccines — and the city of San Diego will lead by example,” Mayor Todd Gloria said. “With city employees regularly interacting with members of the public, this vaccination mandate takes on even more necessity — not only to protect the public, but also to protect our city workers.”

Since the mandate was announced on Aug. 26, the city has reached negotiations with five of its six recognized employee organizations. It is currently at an impasse with the San Diego Police Officers Association, which has been a vocal opponent of vaccine mandates.

Gloria will ask the City Council to impose the vaccine mandate on SDPOA-represented employees and codify the COVID-19 vaccination policy in a city ordinance during a council meeting on Nov. 29.

The city will provide medical and religious exemptions on a case-by- case basis, as required by law. Any city employee who refuses to get vaccinated and is not provided with an exemption will be fired.

“I support Mayor Todd Gloria’s vaccine mandate for city employees,” said Council President Jennifer Campbell. “Billions of people around the world have been safely vaccinated and protected themselves, their families and their communities from COVID-19, which is still taking over a thousand American lives every day.

“As public servants, it is our duty to protect the city of San Diego and its residents from this deadly and contagious disease,” Campbell said.

The city will continue to allow its employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine while on the clock, Gloria’s office said. To help employees comply with the mandate and receive both their first and second doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, San Diego has provided opportunities for on-site, walk-up vaccination at various city facilities and across the city.

“The city of San Diego has lost many members of our valued workforce to COVID-19 who were unvaccinated,” said Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert co- chair of the City Council’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Committee. “It is imperative that we keep our dedicated city employees healthy and able to perform their duties to serve the residents of San Diego.”

“Last month, I tested positive for COVID-19 and although I was very symptomatic, I am extremely lucky that because I was vaccinated, I am still alive today,” she said. “Requiring vaccinations for city employees is a necessary step to save lives now and to keep government functioning to ensure our continued recovery from this devastating pandemic.”

In a survey released in September, around 90% of the 733 San Diego Police Officers Association officers polled believed getting the vaccine should be an individual choice. More than 300 officers said they’d rather be fired than be forced to take the vaccine.

SDPD Chief David Nisleit said the possibility of losing officers due to vaccine mandates was an issue.

“That’s concerning, the possible impacts of if we were to lose officers, you look at this police department, our ratio of officers to citizens is second-lowest in this nation, so obviously that impacts our ability to respond to crime,” he said.

First responder James Burnett said he’s afraid vaccine mandates will be implemented “wherever we go.”

“I’m trying not to make a move until we know for sure what’s going to happen,” first responder James Burnett said. “And that’s the thing is it’s scary not knowing what’s going to happen, so I’m afraid to uproot my family again in fear of this could happen wherever I go.”

Gloria hasn’t backed down from the SDPOA challenge.

“We’re going to do everything we can to retain the valuable members of our organization, but if folks choose to go somewhere else, we’ll do our level best to recruit topflight, high first-class talent,” Gloria said at the time.

On Nov. 1, city employees were allowed to submit requests for reasonable accommodation and medical or religious exemption from the vaccination policy.

“We are mandating that our employees adhere to the same standards that this mayor, that this City Council have adhered to,” said Councilman Joe LaCava. “Unvaccinated, unprotected employees simply cannot serve the public, which includes individuals who are immunocompromised, elderly and vulnerable.

“To efficiently provide necessary services and protections, the city must employ and enforce a vaccine mandate,” he said.

To date, nearly 1,300 city employees have been infected with COVID-19 across all departments. San Diego has experienced staffing challenges because of staff being sick or having to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, Gloria’s office said.

As an example, Gloria said COVID-19 infections have resulted in delays in trash collection in 45 trash routes, 1,030 recycling routes and 45 greenery routes since July 2020. These delayed routes have impacted more than 1.3 million city residents, some on multiple occasions.

Additionally, as a result of rising positive tests, the San Diego Police Department has had to suspend its police academy operations on two occasions. The San Diego Fire Department has also had to temporarily close two fire academies and make changes in operational protocols when more than 30 personnel were in isolation at one time due to positive COVID-19 tests.

FOX 5’s Kelsey Christensen contributed to this story.

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