COVID-19 case rates in Virginia as of Jan. 7, as measured on a rate per 100,000 basis. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Health.

Updated Jan. 11, 2022

In light of the most recent spike in COVID-19 infections, the City of Roanoke announced Tuesday that all 1,700 city employees must either be vaccinated or present regular negative tests and wear face coverings while at work. “Plans continue to finalize policy to comply with the federal OSHA mandate,” City Manager Bob Cowell said Friday in an email that was obtained by Cardinal News, referring to the emergency temporary standard issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) intended to make workplaces safer and encourage vaccination. Roanoke’s requirement will be effective Feb. 1, allowing for enough time to get vaccinated. 

The federal standard, which compels employers with 100 or more employees to require non-vaccinated employees to wear a mask at work and test negative at least weekly for the coronavirus or simply stay away, is being weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court in a special session Friday. The court is hearing arguments about whether to allow the administration of President Joe Biden to enforce the vaccine-or-testing requirement applying to large employers and a separate vaccine mandate for most health care workers.

Cowell wrote that if the court upholds the regulations, “additional information will be provided Monday of next week.” Lauren Waldron, shared the city’s new policy in an email Tuesday. 

Roanoke’s COVID-19 policy on vaccination, testing, and face covering use applies to all employees of the city, except for employees who do not report to a workplace where other individuals (such as coworkers or customers) are present; employees while working from home; and employees who work exclusively outdoors. As of the effective date of this policy, the city does not employ anyone no city considered to work exclusively outdoors.

The city’s policy requires all employees to report their vaccination status and, if vaccinated, provide proof of vaccination. “Employees not in compliance with this policy will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to being placed on unpaid leave until coming into compliance with this policy. Multiple violations may result in termination,” the policy said.

Roanoke’s weighing of a vaccine requirement came on the same day that Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares announced once the new administration is sworn in this weekend, Virginia would join other Republican-led states and business groups in challenging federal mandates intended to increase the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination rate. 

“While we believe that the vaccine is a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19, we strongly believe that the federal government cannot impose its will and restrict the freedoms of Americans and that Virginia is at its best when her people are allowed to make the best decisions for their families or businesses,” Youngkin and Miyares said in the joint statement.

Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea first raised the topic of a vaccine mandate for city employees at a City Council meeting in early August, but he backed off the idea a few days later.  Cowell said in an internal email on Aug. 6 that he had been unaware of Lea’s position, “or his intent to discuss this at an upcoming council meeting.” While Cowell reinstated a mask mandate during the Delta surge that had been lifted over the summer, he did not go as far as requiring employees to get the shot. “I currently have no intent of instituting any form of mandatory vaccinations,” he said in the email. “I continue to strongly encourage vaccination as the best means to protect you, your fellow workers and family, and I also believe it represents the best way to get the pandemic under control. However, I also recognize that getting vaccinated remains a personal choice.” Cowell reiterated his position in another email from Sept. 27, although he also pointed out that the city would have no choice but follow a mandate issued by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

In his email to employees, Cowell cited the test positivity rate in Roanoke which on Friday was 23.4% – significantly higher than at any point in the pandemic. “Cases among the city workforce continue to increase with at least 32 new cases just this week through today,” Cowell said.

This chart shows covid case rates in Virginia since the beginning of the pandemic. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Health.
This chart shows the vaccination rate for each locality in Virginia. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Health. See the VDH covid dashboard for an interactive version where you can look up rates.
Email from Roanoke city manager Bob Cowell.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.