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Tina Casey headshot

Shame, Shame, Shame: Corporate Leaders Find Their Voices on COVID-19

By Tina Casey

Public health professionals are leery of shaming people into following their guidance, preferring to appeal to a sense of personal responsibility and self-preservation. However, businesses are under no such self-imposed restraint. They are beginning to lose patience with those who continue to ignore all the evidence about COVID-19 and refuse to get vaccinated, and signs are emerging that corporate leaders are poised to deploy the shame card.

Elected officials drop the COVID-19 ball

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the consequences of science denial into stark relief. Even as the new Delta strain of the virus attacks those who failed to get vaccinated, some elected officials have continued to downplay the threat, and large swaths of the public are still following online rumors instead of following the advice of doctors.

The state of Florida has emerged as the poster child for efforts to keep state and local economies open against the advice of public health experts. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis became notorious for reportedly suppressing data on COVID-19 infections as the outbreak took hold on 2020, and he has continued to advocate against mask mandates even as Florida emerges as a hotspot for the spread of the deadly new Delta strain.

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Texas and several other states are also reeling under the impact of the Delta strain, but Florida continues to hold the media spotlight on account of Governor DeSantis’s efforts to prevent local school districts from requiring masks indoors, potentially endangering hundreds of thousands of children who are too young to get vaccinated.

Purveyor of Happy Meals steps up for masks

The governor’s position on local school districts stands in stark contrast to the corporate response. If his executive order stands up to legal challenges, it will lead to a situation in which children in Florida are protected in private settings but not in public classrooms.

McDonald’s, for one, is among those choosing not to put children at risk. The company attracted the media spotlight earlier this week when it announced that it is imposing a mask mandate for workers and customers in areas where the risk of infection is substantial or high, regardless of their vaccination status.

That includes all of Florida, where the risk in one county is currently listed as substantial, and every one of the others is listed as high.

In effect, the McDonald’s mandate means parents in Florida are required to protect their children against infection if they want to get a Happy Meal, but not when sending them to school.

Corporate leaders advocate for science

Publix, another company with a large footprint in Florida, has also once again imposed its mask mandate. So far, the Publix order only applies to employees, regardless of their vaccination status. However, the company’s website hints that it is beginning to lose patience with anti-science members of the public.

“We are aware of the large amount of information being circulated about the coronavirus (COVID-19),” Publix states. “We recommend keeping up with the latest information available on https://www.cdc.gov/ncov."

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people in areas of substantial- or high-transmission risk wear face coverings over their noses and mouths when in public, indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status,” Publix adds.

Walmart plays the shame card on vaccines

Walmart has also stepped up its advocacy for CDC guidance. The company dropped its mask requirement for vaccinated employees and customers in May in accordance with earlier guidance, but last week the company issued a long, detailed update that imposed the mask requirement again and imposed a vaccine mandate as well.

A growing number of companies are beginning to impose vaccination requirements on their employees, but Walmart’s is especially noteworthy because the company singled out the unvaccinated as being a threat to the well-being of the company.

While recognizing the appropriateness of religious and medical exemptions, Walmart dismissed any and all other excuses for not getting vaccinated.

“We know vaccinations are our solution to drive change. We are urging you to get vaccinated and want to see many more of you vaccinated [emphasis the company’s],” Walmart wrote to associates.

In a polite but pointed attempt to express its anger and frustration, Walmart also painstakingly detailed its many contributions to corporate testing and vaccination initiatives during the outbreak.

“As a country, vaccination options have been available for months, but, unfortunately, because so many people have chosen not to receive it, weve left ourselves more vulnerable to variants,” Walmart continued, adding that “we want to get to a place where we can use our offices and be together safely. Its important for our business, our culture, our speed and our innovation.”

All this was by way of introducing a new directive that associates who wish to remain on the payroll need to start making some hard choices of their own. Absent a legitimate religious or medical excuse, Walmart is now requiring all associates to be vaccinated by October 4.

The righteousness of vaccine shame

Governor DeSantis has gone on record pushing back on the notion that unvaccinated people should be shamed.

However, public opinion on COVID-19 appears to be growing on the side of companies like Walmart.

The latest iteration of the Axios-Ipsos Vaccine Index suggests that conventional public health messaging has barely moved the needle on vaccine refusal, leaving vaccine mandates as the only effective recourse for businesses seeking to protect their vaccinated employees.

Moreover, the poll indicates that companies are on safe ground when they assign blame to the unvaccinated.

“Four out of five (79 percent) of the vaccinated point to the unvaccinated as who they blame for rising cases,” the poll found.

In its updated advocacy for universal vaccination, Walmart may have touched a nerve by pointing out that unvaccinated employees pose a threat to the ability of vaccinated employees to make a living.

The Axios/Ipsos tracker already indicates that the economy is slowing down as a result of the latest wave. Vaccinated people will bear the consequences through no fault of their own.

In effect, Walmart argues that corporate citizens have a duty to protect both the health and the livelihood of all employees, and not continue to coddle those who choose to do the wrong thing.

Against that argument, the excuses of the unvaccinated, and those who support them, are worthy of public shame.

Image credit: Kobby Mendez/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey