On May 10, 2021, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that beginning in the fall 2021 semester, all on-campus students attending colleges and universities in the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
According to Politico, Gov. Cuomo said, “‘If you must have a vaccine, get it now if you have to get it anyway.” The Governor added, “‘I also encourage private [colleges and universities] to do the same thing. Let’s make a global statement — you cannot go back to school in September unless you have a vaccine.’” The Governor indicated that the state is concerned about the relatively low (24.7%) COVID-19 vaccination rate amongst New Yorkers ages 16 to 25.
Following his announcement, the Governor added that a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for students attending public college and universities would only take effect if vaccinations receive full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before classes begin in the fall. Currently, COVID-19 vaccines are only available under an emergency use authorization.
At this writing, Gov. Cuomo’s proposed vaccination mandate is nothing more than an announcement. It has no legal force or effect. Furthermore, it is unclear how Gov. Cuomo intends to implement this new mandate. The Governor no longer has the authority to impose new emergency orders and directives regarding COVID-19. Existing emergency orders and directives regarding COVID-19 do not contain the proposed mandate. Does the Governor intend to create new regulations affecting public colleges and universities? Time will tell.
The proposed vaccination mandate is also unclear. Gov. Cuomo failed to mention whether the mandate would contain religious or medical exceptions.
Like many of Gov. Cuomo’s other actions and proposals, the vaccination mandate he has in mind is unnecessarily heavy-handed. While it is appropriate to take steps to minimize the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses, other options for promoting vaccinations—such as on-campus public education campaigns—could be attempted before the state resorts to a mandate. Even if the FDA gives full approval for a COVID-19 vaccine, some New Yorkers will remain leery of it and will be concerned about whether its long-term implications are fully known. Instead of banning those students from campuses, the state should try to work out a mutually palatable solution.