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Lightfoot says police vaccine rule will not be lifted

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With the police union’s threat that thousands of Chicago police officers will defy Friday’s deadline to report their COVID-19 vaccine status, city officials reiterated that the rule will be enforced and that those who don’t comply will be subject to disciplinary action.

Chicago police First Deputy Superintendent Eric Carter said the department expects officers to get vaccinated. Under the rules laid out by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, every member of the department must report their status and, if they aren’t vaccinated, they’ll have to undergo testing at their own time and expense, he said.

Potential discipline includes “separation,” Carter said.

Carter and Chief of Operations Brian McDermott also sought to downplay the possibility of police shortages over the weekend, saying the department would be fully staffed.

Lightfoot said anyone expected to work over the weekend must show up unless they’re explicitly told not to.

“Anything less would be insubordination,” she said.

Those who do not show, or don’t comply with the reporting requirement, will at some point be moved to a no-pay status. But she said that won’t happen this weekend because the city will need to take time to reach out to people who aren’t in compliance and verify the situation.

The mayor’s comments give the city additional wiggle room and time to avoid a full on fight with workers and police.

But the developments also marked another escalation in the showdown over the mandate with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7. Two days earlier, union President John Catanzara — with whom Lightfoot has regularly sparred — released a video that included threats to sue the city and orders for thousands of rank-and-file members to defy Lightfoot’s vaccination reporting requirement and brace for being sent home without pay.

It is unclear how many officers will follow suit. But in a new video Catanzara posted Thursday evening, the union boss again told his members to refuse any order to report their vaccine status, calling that an illegal order. He encouraged his rank-and-file to record any such order on their body cameras if able.

“Apparently, the city blinked a little bit here and backtracked,” he said. “Everybody will be getting paid come midnight tomorrow night. You will not be sent home from work.”

Catanzara also criticized the police leadership for not pushing back against Lightfoot, describing her mayoralty as a “dictatorship.”

“You would think that there’s no crime in this city to worry about. You would think that there’s no murder, no robberies, no guns being fired, no kids being, you know, shot and killed, it’s pathetic,” Catanzara said.

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Lightfoot declared in August that all city workers must be vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 15. But the FOP has repeatedly criticized the mandate, with Catanzara likening it to Nazi Germany before apologizing.

Last Friday, Lightfoot announced that if employees fail to report their vaccination status before midnight Friday night, they will be placed in a nondisciplinary no-pay status. She also said those who failed to meet the deadline to get vaccinated can opt for semiweekly COVID-19 testing at their own expense.

Catanzara responded by encouraging rank-and-file officers to not report their vaccine status to a city portal and instead to fill out forms citing “conscientious objection” to the vaccine mandate. He advised them to report to work Friday with the assumption they would be sent home and said he would also forgo pay.

Catanzara estimated that the city’s police force will operate at a capacity of 50% or less this weekend because of the actions. And the call for officers not to report vaccine status presses the city to “take a position formally” on conscientious objection, he said, so the FOP can take class action.

“I can guarantee” that the city will not be able to sustain this small workforce, said Catanzara, predicting that the no-pay status would therefore last no longer than seven days.

Lightfoot compared Catanzara’s directions to walking off a cliff without a parachute.

But she’s is in a politically fraught situation with the dispute over vaccination mandates. She wants to encourage workers to get vaccinated but doesn’t want to suspend significant portions of the workforce, particularly not police officers, as Chicago crime remains high. Lightfoot, who has repeatedly backed away from ultimatums she has issued to the Chicago Teachers Union in other labor disputes, doesn’t want to back down from the mandate, which leaves her with relatively little room to maneuver.

At her post-City Council news conference, the mayor reiterated the need for city workers to get vaccinated and repeated that Friday is the deadline to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing and report their status to the city, which she said is a “pretty straightforward” request for information.

City workers’ health directly affects all residents, she said, as workers do their jobs all over the city and interact with the public.

The mayor said she understands “some people need more time” and that’s why there’s a testing carve-out right now. But, Lightfoot said, testing isn’t the best way to ensure a safe workplace, as it’s just a snapshot of a person’s immediate health.

Workers who fail to report their vaccination status will be placed on no pay nondisciplinary status, LIghtfoot said.

Filling out the form, LIghtfoot said, “takes mere minutes.”

Public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said 6,012 Chicago residents have died from COVID-19 but 5,947 were unvaccinated. Mandating the vaccine is about saving lives, Arwady said.

The police union earlier this week released a letter that, according to the union, went to the city attorney advising that if the city did not reverse its vaccination reporting policy, “appropriate litigation will be initiated to preserve the collective bargaining rights of police officers and their unions.”

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