President Biden on Thursday announced that all federal employees will be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or face new testing, masking and distancing rules, as the White House takes a more aggressive approach to address the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.
“After months and months of cases going down, we’re seeing a spike in covid cases. … Why? Because of this new form, this new variant called the delta variant,” Biden said in remarks at the White House in which he described the new restrictions.
Biden’s directive will affect more than 4 million Americans, including over 2 million in the federal civilian workforce. On-site contractors also would be required to attest to their vaccination status.
Those who are not fully vaccinated would be required to wear a mask at work, physically distance from other employees and visitors, and undergo weekly or twice weekly testing.
The directive applies to federal employees and contractors both in the United States and overseas. The White House said those who are unvaccinated would be subject to restrictions on official travel.
The White House is not planning on firing government employees who aren’t vaccinated but see the restrictions on them as a way to encourage them to receive one of the vaccines that have received emergency-use authorization.
In a separate push to get more Americans vaccinated, the Treasury Department said Biden “is calling on state, territorial, and local governments to provide $100 payments for every newly vaccinated American, as an extra incentive to boost vaccination rates, protect communities, and save lives.”
The money would come from the $350 billion fund to help states, local governments and territories that was part of the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this year.
Biden also directed Defense Department officials to consider how and when they will add the coronavirus vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military, a step the White House considers critical as troops are serving in places with low vaccination rates and high infection case numbers.
Pushing back against misinformation about the vaccine, Biden credited Republicans who have called on Americans to get vaccinated, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.
“This is not about red states and blue states. It’s literally about life and death. It’s about life and death,” the president said.
Anticipating those who reject the government pressure, Biden said, “I know people talk about freedom, but I learned growing up … with freedom comes responsibility. Your decision to be unvaccinated impacts someone else. Unvaccinated people spread the virus.”
The new policy closely aligns with steps recently put in place for government officials in California, New York state and New York City and comes as a rapidly growing number of private business are requiring their employees to get vaccinated as a condition of employment.
Briefly elaborating ahead of the president’s remarks, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the new policy “means confirming vaccination status or abiding by stringent covid-19 protocols like mandatory mask-wearing, even in communities not with high or substantial spread, and regular testing for federal employees.”
Jean-Pierre was unable to provide a number on how many federal employees are unvaccinated while offering the administration’s rationale for the new policy
“It is a choice that employees will be able to make because largely unvaccinated people continue to spread the virus. And until we have more people who are vaccinated and are curbing the spread, there needs to be proper protocols to keep Americans safe,” she said.
In recent days, the delta variant has spread markedly through parts of the United States, particularly among unvaccinated Americans, undercutting progress the Biden administration had made combating the virus.
On Thursday morning, the government announced that the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 6.5 percent in the quarter ending in June, marking the first time since the pandemic took hold that economic output eclipsed its pre-pandemic high, after adjusting for inflation. But some economists cautioned that the spread of the delta variant has added uncertainty to future growth.
At a “Buy American” event Wednesday in Pennsylvania, Biden renewed his plea for Americans who have been hesitant to get vaccinated to get protected.
“We still have a lot of people not vaccinated,” he said. “The pandemic we have now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. So, please — please, please, please, if you’re not vaccinated, protect yourself and the children out there. It’s important.”
Public health experts have long said that getting at least 70 percent of the public vaccinated is the single most important tool in controlling the pandemic, but some parts of the United States have fallen far short of that target. And some authorities are urging an even higher rate of vaccinations, given the increased virulence of the variant.
Earlier this week, California, New York state and New York City said they would require government employees to either be vaccinated or face repeated testing requirements.