About 10% of Richmond city employees will not be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine after applying for an exemption to the city’s shot mandate.
With an Oct. 1 vaccination deadline looming for the city’s approximately 3,600 employees, about three quarters of its workforce is now fully vaccinated. While nearly all other employees have received their first dose or been excused for a medical or religious reason, 30 are currently on unpaid leave for not complying with the order.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Mayor Levar Stoney said he is pleased that city employees are setting an example for the rest of the city, where only 54% of adults have been fully vaccinated against the virus.
“I’m proud because I want all our employees and public servants to be the model for our community,” Stoney said. “We’re going to keep on working to ensure that the remaining employees become compliant with this mandate.”
Out of the 360 or so employees exempted from the order, however, about 9 in 10 were excused by providing no more than a notarized statement that said the vaccine conflicts with their religious tenets or practices, according to city officials.
Vaccines are encouraged by nearly every major religious denomination in the U.S.
The vaccine order applies to all city employees, including police, fire, public works and utilities staff members. It does not apply to employees of the independent Richmond Ambulance Authority or constitutional offices, such as those run by the city’s sheriff, voter registrar and prosecutor.
Unlike employees of the city school division, which has also mandated that all of its employees get vaccinated, city employees did not need to have a faith leader co-sign their exemption request.
“Religious exemptions to mandates are standard and widely implemented throughout the public and private sector,” said Jim Nolan, a spokesman for the mayor. “We’re proud of our program, and of the 99 percent compliance rate we have achieved, making both City of Richmond employees and the residents with whom they interact safer. We hope others follow suit.”
All unvaccinated employees will be required to submit weekly COVID test results to maintain their exempt status, he added.
City officials have said that employees could be terminated for failing to comply with the order.
More than 100 million Americans will soon be subject to a similar vaccine mandate that President Joe Biden ordered last week for executive branch employees and businesses with more than 100 people on their payroll.
Some who are subject to the order may also be likely to seek religious or “personal belief” exemption, as allowed by 44 states and Washington, D.C. according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The exemption is allowed because of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements because of “sincerely held” religious beliefs.
A religious belief does not have to be recognized by an organized religion, and it can be new, unusual or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others,” according to rules laid out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But it can’t be founded solely on political or social ideas.
When asked Wednesday, Nolan, the mayor’s spokesperson, did not provide details about how the city administration verified the validity of employees’ religious exemption requests. He noted, however, that lying in a notarized statement can be a criminal offense.
Local health officials at Wednesday’s news conference with the mayor said they remain concerned about the ongoing spread of the virus.
As of Wednesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health, there have been about 95 new COVID-19 cases in the city each day over the past week.
Dr. Melissa Viray, deputy director of the Richmond and Henrico County health districts, said hospitalizations in the area are lower than they are elsewhere in the state, but it still remains a concern as each patient with COVID-19 reduces the capacity for hospitals to treat other patients in emergency situations.
“It compromises our ability to take care of our sickest people,” Viray said. “In order for us to be able to respond to those things … we have to have fewer COVID hospitalizations. Vaccination is the way to do that.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.