A Cook County judge on Monday suspended the city of Chicago’s policy requiring that all of its police officers be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of the year.
The ruling is a major victory for police unions, who have held that the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate violates their collective bargaining agreements. Judge Raymond Mitchell ruled Monday that the mandate should be halted for police officers until those complaints can be settled in arbitration.
Mitchell’s ruling does not impact other city workers, or other parts of the policy. That means city employees who are not represented by any of the four police unions will still have to be vaccinated by Dec. 31, 2021. And all police officers are still required to report their vaccination status and get tested twice a week if they’re not vaccinated.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an unrelated news conference Monday afternoon that her office is still reviewing the order, and she hadn’t yet read it. She declined to comment on whether the dispute will be resolved by the end of the year, but contended the “mandate continues.”
“Our lawyers are looking at the judge’s ruling and looking at what our legal options are,” she said. “But what I know is we cannot stop, we absolutely cannot stop. This is about saving people’s lives.”
About 58% of the city’s police force has reported being vaccinated against COVID-19, according to city data. However, about 27% of officers still have not reported their vaccination status at all.
Up until now, much of the public fight over Chicago’s vaccination policy has been over the reporting requirement. John Catanzara, the head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, has vocally opposed the requirement that all workers share whether or not they are vaccinated against COVID-19, calling it an invasion of privacy and a violation of the police contract.
Catanzara repeatedly called for officers to “hold the line” and refuse to share their vaccination status with the city. However, the majority of FOP members went against his wishes and updated their status.
Catanzara said that did not mean officers had largely rejected his strident messaging. Instead, he said he believes most of the union members who did comply had already done so before he started his near-daily calls for disobedience near the end of October.
“There’s still over 3,000 members not in the [vaccine] portal,” Catanzara said at a press conference outside of police headquarters last week. “No one’s stopping them from [sharing their status] voluntarily. They’re intentionally not complying with the portal request and demand period. I think that’s unity.”
Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said on Monday that 35 officers had been stripped of their police powers for refusing a direct order to provide their vaccination status.
Mitchell’s ruling Monday moves the conversation forward toward the much bigger vaccination deadline of Dec. 31. His order brushed aside the union’s complaints about reporting, calling the requirement “a minimal intrusion” that could be remedied later if an arbiter found the requirement violated the city’s contracts with its police officers.
On the vaccine requirement however, the judge said there would be no possible remedy after the mandatory deadline if the policy was ultimately found to violate the collective bargaining agreements.
“If every union member complied and was vaccinated by December 31 … they would have no grievance to pursue and there would be no remedy an arbitrator could award,” the judge wrote in his order. “An award of back pay or reinstatement cannot undo a vaccine. Nothing can.”
When asked for comment, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office indicated she would answer questions at an unrelated 2pm news conference the mayor is holding.
The mayor has contended the vaccination requirement is essential for the health and safety of both the public and city employees themselves. In an impassioned address to aldermen on Friday, she pointed out that four officers have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
“I want to ask those who say they ‘support the police’ — how many more have to die?,” Lightfoot said, specifically responding to a group of aldermen who attempted — and failed Friday — to repeal the mandate.
“The people who are unvaccinated are playing Russian roulette with their life and they’re playing Russian roulette with … the people of this city who have a right to believe that when someone from the city government shows up at their door, they are there to help them and save their life, not imperil it.”
Catanzara, however, has said that the vaccine requirement is not about public health or safety, but instead about Lightfoot’s need for “total control.” He said the police unions have suggested that officers undergo COVID-19 testing before starting each shift.
“If it’s about stopping the spread, then let’s test every day you go to work, not just once a week or twice a week, they said no on face value. So who’s full of crap here?” Catanzara said on Oct. 25.
A vast majority of city employees from other departments have complied with the current order to report their vaccination status — with 32 of 34 city departments having at least 92 percent of employees in compliance.
The mayor’s vaccine mandate has dominated the news for months now after it was announced with few details in August. It faced immediate pushback from the Chicago Federation of Labor, an umbrella organization for unions. The group opposes punitive measures included in the mandate, such as putting employees on no-pay status for not complying.
A week before a previously declared Oct. 15 deadline for all employees to get vaccinated, the mayor eased the mandate, allowing employees to simply report their vaccination status by that date, and allowing unvaccinated employees to test twice-weekly until the end of the year.
Chip Mitchell contributed reporting.
Mariah Woelfel covers city government for WBEZ. Follow her @MariahWoelfel.