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opinion

For a fellow with higher political aspirations, outgoing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has a peculiar but perhaps predictable way of treating a constituency as influential as the city’s business community.

But for the notoriously business-unfriendly Mr. de Blasio, his research – or his gut - must be telling him that, as he eyes a run for the governor’s office, he can do without them.

How else to explain his stunning move this week to impose a new mandate forcing all private businesses in the city to have their workers vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 27, three days before he leaves office?

The new rule, affecting 184,000 businesses in America’s largest city, also eliminates the regular testing option for workers who refuse vaccination.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat who failed in a U.S. presidential bid in 2020, called the move a “pre-emptive strike” against a triple threat of COVID-19-related factors: holiday gatherings, colder weather and the potential impact of the Omicron variant.

Mr. de Blasio has been no stranger to criticism for anti-business policies during his eight years as mayor, but this latest edict, which blindsided many business leaders, is particularly jarring to a city business community struggling to recover from the pandemic. It also bucks a national trend that has seen the Biden administration’s federal vaccine mandates for businesses blocked in several states, including a ruling on Tuesday barring mandatory vaccination for private government contractors.

The de Blasio mandate, details of which won’t be released until next week, has irked businesses large and small, not only because of its potential to further slow an economic recovery but because it is almost impossible to implement on such a tight deadline. And, many say, he did not consult business leaders as he often does about such important decisions.

“It’s pure politics,” Kathryn Wylde, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for New York, a group of chief executives, said in media interviews, adding that the mandate will prevent people’s return to work and limit consumer traffic.

Business media, too, called out the mayor. A Wall Street Journal editorial, “Bill de Blasio’s Parting Insult,” said the mandate was “coercive and counterproductive.”

Perhaps the most critical voice is that of Eric Adams, who will inherit the mandate when he succeeds Mr. de Blasio as mayor on Jan. 1.

In a statement, Mr. Adams’s office was non-committal, saying he would evaluate the mandate and other strategies “and make determinations based on science, efficacy and the advice of health professionals.”

Mr. de Blasio’s mandate points to the deep political divide in the U.S. around the management of the pandemic.

More than two dozen states have filed legal challenges to the Biden administration’s “vax-or-test” mandates for businesses. Over the past month, federal courts have blocked vaccination mandates for 10 million U.S. health care workers and similar federal mandates in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Utah.

Florida has been among the most aggressive states in pushing back. Last month Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed a law prohibiting vaccine mandates for employees of private companies and imposing stiff fines of as much as US$50,000 per employee for companies that violate the law.

Most confusing to many Americans is that leaders on both sides of the aisle – Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Adams and Mr. DeSantis included – claim science as a guiding principle yet have very different approaches to its application.

It’s unclear who is right, as the numbers of COVID-19 cases rise and fall regularly in red and blue states regardless of the approach. What is clear is that the management of COVID-19 is neither purely political nor purely science – it is perhaps best described as “political science.”

As for Mr. de Blasio and his latest gambit, his track record suggests that, despite his weak showing on the national stage, he knows New Yorkers. Clearly the numbers and whispers informing his decision to run for governor indicate the mandate is a move in the right direction, despite any criticism it generates.

Or perhaps he is simply channelling his inner P.T. Barnum, the circus impresario who said famously to a blackmailing writer: “Say anything you like about me but spell my name right.”

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