STARKVILLE — As nearly 100 citizens filled the City Hall courtyard Tuesday evening, chants of “my body, my choice” rang out.
A longtime slogan typical of the abortion rights movement, however, had found favor with a different group entirely — those protesting mandates for COVID-19 vaccines.
After rumors spread on social media the city’s board of aldermen planned to approve a vaccine mandate for all city employees, a group of “pro-choicers” held a “Medical Freedom March” at the board’s Tuesday evening meeting.
Spearheading the protest was Starkville resident Laura Whatley, who is not a city employee. She posted to Facebook last week informing residents of the protest and potential of the city’s new policy. She said she wanted to stand up for city employees who may be afraid to speak out against these potential regulations in fear of workplace repercussions.
“Even though there are many people saying ‘Oh, I’m not a city employee. This doesn’t affect me,’ it does affect you because you live in this city,” Whatley said. “We utilize services this city provides every day. … Some of these people unfortunately cannot stand up and speak out about this in fear of losing their job or repercussions at their jobs.”
While Starkville is not enacting a vaccine mandate, the board voted 5-2 Tuesday to approve a COVID-19 vaccine policy for city employees. It specifies that all unvaccinated employees must wear masks in all indoor locations unless in a private office and in outdoor settings where six feet distance from other employees is not possible.
Unvaccinated employees must also use sick leave if they contract the virus and will have a yearly $75 upcharge on insurance based on Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 policy. No weekly COVID-19 tests will be required for unvaccinated workers, which was rumored by many protesters. Non-compliance with these policy procedures can result in termination.
Vaccinated employees will receive up to five additional paid sick days if they contract the virus and an additional day if they are not feeling well after receiving the vaccine.
Mayor Lynn Spruill proposed the policy. She said it would not require workers to receive the vaccine but give incentives to those who are vaccinated.
Employees openly protest policy
Several protesters addressed the board during the citizen’s comments section of the meeting, particularly multiple members of the Starkville Fire Department. Firefighter Joseph Diaz, who protested the city’s policy, said he was standing up for other employees who may be afraid to come forward.
“If it passes, I will not comply with your policy of discrimination against those that have not taken the COVID shot,” Diaz said to the board. “You will have to terminate me. I have not come here to convince you of the correctness of my stance. … From now on, my voice and the voice of like-minded employees will be best heard through our actions.”
SFD Lt. Paramedic Chance Cummings echoed these concerns saying he is “not anti-vaccination but pro-choice.”
“Starkville has long claimed to be a city of inclusiveness,” Cummings said. “This is evidenced by the Pride parades, the LGBTQ+ events and the community marches for racial injustice. This administration has always boasted that all walks of life are welcome in Starkville until now. … The city has made a complete 180 degree turn from its stance at the unity march in June 2020. I guess the pride for the LGBTQ+ community and the Black lives only matter if they’re vaccinated.”
Some citizens, such as public health practitioner David Buys, spoke in support of the policy.
Buys, Mississippi State University associate professor, said he supports an employee vaccine policy and believes in wearing face coverings to prevent COVID-19. He said public policy and public health are aligned, and the board should be the ones to take all preventive measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
“I would argue that this is a medical freedom — that masking is a medical freedom issue,” Buys said. “It gives my children who are not able to be vaccinated the freedom to go to the grocery store with me, and my wife and I don’t have to decide which one is going and which one is keeping the kids.”
After protesters claimed the city’s policy is illegal, board attorney Chris Latimer cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Jacobson v. the commonwealth of Massachusetts) that ruled vaccine mandates were legal and abided by the constitution. Several businesses and institutions since this ruling have upheld vaccine mandates, but he said this instance is far different from that because it is in no sense a mandate and the policy “checks all the boxes” and is legal.
“If those things are legal, then these incentives should also be legal,” Latimer said. “… Right now there’s not a definitive circuit court case or Mississippi Supreme Court case that specifically addresses some of these policy provisions.”
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, one of the affirming votes, said public officials have the responsibility to keep citizens safe.
“I do feel that individuals should have the ability to make decisions about their own health care, but as public officials, we have a responsibility not to individuals but to the public at large,” Sistrunk said. “I think that means we need to take whatever measures are reasonable and legal and allow us to operate as we need to as a city to keep the public safe.”
Ward 5 Hamp Beatty echoed Sistrunk’s approval saying a policy such as this does not infringe on constitutional rights. Individuals comply with seat belt and airport laws every day, and vaccine policies are no different.
“If the hospital here is full, and the hospital in Columbus is full, and the hospitals in Tupelo are full, and (University of Mississippi Medical Center) has got a darn parking garage that has coronavirus people in it, if you have a car wreck, where in the hell are you going to go?” Beatty said.
Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn, one of the dissenting votes, said he does not believe employees should have to do something they do not want to, even though the policy does not require any employee to get vaccinated. He said if he were to make a proposal, he would just reenact the city’s mask mandate.
“We wonder why African Americans are so hesitant about taking the vaccination, but you have to think about the days of Tuskegee when African Americans were used to be experimented on, and that’s why African Americans are hesitant about taking the vaccination,” Vaughn said. “… I don’t feel good forcing nobody to do anything.”
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, the other vote against the policy, said the discussion around COVID-19 vaccines has created a “culture of chaos,” and that was displayed on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday. He said his primary concern would be employees leaving their positions because they disagree with the policy.
“Many employees have expressed to me that they are considering leaving if the policy passes,” Carver said. “… I’m highly encouraging all city employees that are thinking about resigning not to. I do think this policy possibly sets a precedent for requiring mandatory vaccinations.”