MSU to Require Covid Booster Shots While Parks & Rec Chair “Irritated” by City’s Lack of Mandate

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East Lansing's City Manager George Lahanas and MSU President Sam Stanley

Michigan State University President Sam Stanley announced today that MSU is requiring students, faculty, and staff to receive Covid-19 boosters for the spring 2022 semester. The announcement comes just a day after the City of East Lansing confirmed to East Lansing Info that it does not have plans to implement any vaccine mandate of its own.

On Wednesday, the City’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission voted unanimously at its Dec. 15 meeting to send a letter to City Manager George Lahanas and City Council to ask that the City institute a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for all City employees and members of City boards and commissions.

ELi asked the City on Dec. 16, the day after the Parks and Rec meeting, if it would implement its own mandate, including if the federal mandate for employers with more than 100 employees to require Covid-19 vaccines is overturned.

According to the City’s Communications Coordinator Mikell Frey, the City will does not have plans to implement its own vaccine mandate, but the City remains prepared to follow any guidance from MIOSHA on how to comply with the federal mandate.

The Parks and Rec Commission viewed the vaccine mandate at MSU as a success story and expressed frustration that the City has not taken similar action.

“I want to say that I am highly irritated that this Commission is forced to discuss this. [These are] decisions that should be made at the highest executive level,” Parks and Rec Commission Chair Pam Weil said at the meeting.

“It’s why those people are paid what they are paid, and, this all, through this pandemic, these decisions have been forced on down to the individuals and the individual commissions like ours, and I think that’s absurd,” she continued.

The idea of the Parks and Rec Commission drafting a letter to request the City institute vaccine requirements and other Covid-19 mitigation efforts was proposed by Commissioner Sarah Reckhow, according to an agenda item summary. Earlier, at the Dec. 7 meeting of City Council, Reckhow, who is a faculty member at MSU, had made her views known to Council during Public Comment.

In the opening text of the draft letter to the City, the Commission wrote, “This [MSU] policy has been successful, with over 90% self-reported vaccination among MSU students, faculty, and staff. On a campus of over 50,000 people, only two staff were fired and only 16 students were suspended for refusing the vaccine.”

During the discussion of the letter, Commissioner Reckhow pointed out that Ann Arbor’s vaccine mandate had resulted in 96% compliance on the day it went into effect. She also said both Ann Arbor and MSU had prevailed in court after being sued for implementing mandates. 

The initial draft letter to the City may have caused some legal issues, according to preliminary advice from the City Attorney.

The draft letter, which was discussed at the Dec. 15 meeting but was not attached to that meeting’s agenda, initially called for the City to take three specific actions:

  1. Adopting a vaccine mandate for employees and members of boards and commissions with an allowance for weekly testing for those with medical exemptions.
  2. Requiring “self-reported confirmation of vaccination” or “ a recent negative test for those with medical exemptions” for anyone visiting City-owned indoor facilities.
  3. Allowing for hybrid meetings if the emergency declaration for Ingham County is extended.

Cathy DeShambo, East Lansing’s Director of Parks and Rec and staff liaison to the advisory commission, said that she had run the draft letter by the City Attorney Laura Genovich, who gave guidance but cautioned that the City Attorney did not consider this advice as final guidance.

According to DeShambo, Genovich said that a vaccine mandate for employees is lawful but would be subject to mandatory bargaining with the City’s unionized bargaining units.

It would be much more problematic to institute a vaccine requirement for those entering City-owned properties, DeShambo relayed. She said that Genovich advised that since almost all City meetings are held in City-owned buildings, requiring vaccination to enter those buildings could result in a potential violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

Genovich was said to have also pointed to other issues. The City owns the building that houses the District 54B Court, but in her understanding of the law, the chief judge makes the administrative decisions for how the court functions. She apparently also said that requiring negative tests or vaccines to access public services offered inside City buildings might cause problems.

In light of that relayed legal guidance, the commissioners debated how then to approach the letter.

Chair Weil pointed out that the Commission is only an advisory body that provides recommendations to Council. She suggested that the Commission could ask what they like and have Council and City staff sort out what could and could not be accomplished.

Commissioner Chuck Overbey recommended streamlining the letter to include only what the commissioners thought was actually achievable. He feared that throwing too many things – a mix of legally permissible and legally impossible – might lead to Council dismissing the letter in its entirety.

The commissioners ultimately agreed to request that the City implement a vaccine mandate for City employees and members of City boards and commissions but removed the request that individuals self-report vaccination to enter City-owned indoor spaces.

As per the recommendation of Commissioner DeLay, the Commission also agreed to rework the language of point three, calling for the City to allow for hybrid meetings whenever possible since some provisions regarding online meetings are decided at the state level.

The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the changes to the letter and then to approve sending the letter on to both the City Manager and City Council. (Commissioner Nichole Biber was absent from the meeting.)

Now, MSU will require booster shots for all who are eligible, beginning in the Spring 2022 semester, which starts in January.

This means a person is age 16 or older and is two months past their one-dose Covid vaccine regimen or six months past their two-dose regimen. Those with religious and medical exemptions for the previous mandate will remain exempt from booster mandate too, according to Stanley.

“The high vaccination rate among our students, faculty and staff has been an essential component to what has been a successful fall semester,” wrote Stanley to the MSU community.

Stanley said that the updated CDC guidance that now “strongly recommends” booster shots for those eligible and “the fact that the Omicron variant has been found in Michigan and is likely at MSU” informed his decision.

“We know our COVID-19 directives are working to mitigate the spread of the virus, and this is an important next step,” Stanley wrote as he ended his letter. “Thank you for doing your part.”

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