Commentary: Leaders lead.

If NOLA can do it, Nashville can, too.

August 17, 2021 5:00 am
Downtown Nashville on a typical night. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Downtown Nashville on a typical night. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Enough already. It is time for Nashville to step up and follow New York’s and San Francisco’s lead, and put in place a vaccination/testing mandate for high-contact indoor establishments and large-venue events.   

That opening paragraph might strike some as delusional: sure, we’re the blue island in a (feels like literally) bloody red sea, but we’re not the coasts. In 2020 Joe Biden carried Nashville by a healthy 64-32% margin, but in New York City it was 76-23%, and in the city of San Francisco it was 85-13%. They can do mandates, we can’t, so the argument might go. 

But with New Orleans now in the mix the picture changes. The Big Easy’s courageous Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced a wide-ranging mandate that took effect earlier this week. How wide? Really wide, encompassing bars, restaurants, breweries, gyms, sports complexes, stadiums, concert venues, music halls, event spaces, casinos, race tracks, and more. 

Bruce Barry. (Photo by Dennis Wile.)
Bruce Barry. (Photo by Dennis Wile.)

Granted, it is the case politically that New Orleans itself—just Orleans Parish—to judge strictly by voting patterns is San Francisco blue (went for Biden 83-15%). But it makes more sense on this sort of issue to think of and compare cities by greater metro (“Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA in government parlance used by the U.S. Census Bureau and other agencies). After all, the virus doesn’t check itself at the county line, and in a sizable metro area like ours people are crossing those lines constantly for work and play. 

When we think in MSA terms we find we find that Nashville and NOLA aren’t so differently blue. An analysis by Bloomberg City Lab of the 2020 vote by metro areas shows that Trump took the Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro MSA with 54%, while Biden won the New Orleans-Metairie MSA with 51%. (By comparison, Biden won 63% of New York City’s MSA and 79% of the San Francisco-Oakland MSA). 

When New York City first unveiled its vaccine mandate a couple of weeks ago, and then San Francisco announced its mandate last week, I did have trouble imagining how this would fly in the pandemic wild west that is Nashville’s downtown honky-tonk scene. But if New Orleans, which like Nashville pins a hefty piece of its economy on keeping part of its city center as a tourist-oriented theme park, can do it then certainly so can we. The bar owners will go apeshit. Let ‘em. And of course the mandate might be, shall we say, “inconsistently” enforced in (rather predictable) spots. That’s not horrible: as long as visitors expect to have to prove vaccination they are that much more likely to come vaccinated when shelling out bucks for an evening or a vacay.

If New Orleans, with similar politics and a similar tourist economy, can mandate vaccines, so can Nashville. Not doing the obviously sensible thing locally because of fears that state house nincompoops might undo it is the epitome of cutting off your nose to spite your face. 

Plus, a mandate need not be an all-or-nothing proposition; there’s room to play with the specific contours. San Francisco’s health order mandates proof of full vaccination, while New Orleans and New York require just one vaccine dose. While the one-dose approach will strike amateur epidemiologists as less than ideal, it might be a reasonable compromise for a city like Nashville, as it makes it possible for the vaccine-reluctant individual to get the first jab and gain access (and if you get the first, that surely makes you far more likely to get the second). Other variations: the New York mandate allows outdoor dining regardless of vax status, and to give businesses a little help the San Francisco mandate doesn’t cover people ordering and picking up food to go. 

Some will ask why should Nashville bother with a mandate when Governor Imbecile will respond by calling the legislature in for a special session to bar the city from doing so. Or maybe he’ll just abuse his emergency powers and issue another unhinged executive order like he did Monday on masks in schools. I say make him do it; make them do it. Not doing the obviously sensible thing locally because of fears that state house nincompoops might undo it is the epitome of cutting off your nose to spite your face. 

The alternative to mandates remains an unappetizing blend of shaming anti-vax types into rationality, and wishful thinking that it will all just go away like a cold sore. In a Tennessean op-ed the other day a physician named Yoo Jung Kim argued that “mocking the misfortunes of the vaccine refusers minimizes their humanity and the suffering experienced by COVID-19 patients.” A different view is that it honors the suffering by calling out those who bear significant responsibility for it. Dr. Kim says that people become more receptive to adjusting their thinking about the vaccine “when I can convince them that change is in their best interests.” A well-conceived and well-implemented vaccine mandate is more likely to be convincing than heart-to-hearts with the Dr. Kims of the world (though I’m fine with having both—whatever works). 

New York’s Bill de Blasio, a guy whose thoughts I am not eager to tap, did put it succinctly enough to quote: “If you want to participate in our society fully, you’ve got to get vaccinated.” Here in Nashville John Cooper can say something similar and perhaps even has, but there are words and then there are deeds. He has the power to make it real. It’s time to use it. Leaders lead, Mr. Mayor, so lead or get out of the way.

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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.