In the coming weeks, County Council members will focus on two proposals related to the coronavirus pandemic: a vaccine mandate for county employees and a vaccine passport for businesses.

The vaccine mandate for county employees, as currently proposed, would allow for medical exemptions. Supporters of the bill have indicated they would allow religious exemptions, too.

The County Council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee and Health and Human Services Committee held a work session on the bill in late November.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz previously told Bethesda Beat that at least a few more work sessions are likely, meaning a final vote won’t be held for weeks.

Last month, County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration unveiled a vaccine passport proposal in which customers at restaurants, entertainment venues, gyms and similar businesses would have to produce proof of vaccination. Washington, D.C., announced a similar proposal prior to that.

The Montgomery County proposal will be introduced at next week’s County Council meeting, but a final vote will not be held then. A public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 18. 

It would not apply to several settings, such as public and private schools, grocery stores, big box stores, and many others. Those placing a take-out order or making a delivery at restaurants or similar venues would be exempt. 

Here is where four county executive candidates and one possible candidate stand on the two proposals. All are Democrats. There is no Republican candidate so far.

David Blair

Blair, a businessman who narrowly lost to Elrich in 2018, said a vaccine mandate is needed to keep residents safe — despite concerns that some first responders might object and quit.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re following science, and the science tells us vaccinations and boosters work,” Blair said. “And it seems if we’re going to have interactions with county residents … then those employees should be vaccinated in order to protect our residents.”

He said he supports the concept of a vaccine passport, but has questions about how it will be implemented, and how businesses will enforce it. 

Blair said some businesses have done a good job setting up their own vaccination policies, but a “streamlined” process through a county order could help.

Marc Elrich 

Elrich, the incumbent, opposes a vaccine mandate in which county employees could lose their jobs if they don’t comply. He is still concerned about the number of first responders who might leave. 

Elrich said he doesn’t think the county’s Fire and Rescue Service having to shift operations because of dwindling staffing would have changed if there were a mandate, given that even vaccinated firefighters will likely be exposed to COVID-19 through their work. 

Supporters of the mandate aren’t considering the effects that large numbers of first responders leaving would have, he said. County officials can’t hire firefighters, police officers or correctional officers quickly because of the training those jobs require, Elrich added.

“I think it drives the needle for some people to get a vaccine,” he said of a mandate. “But there are some people who want out, either as a police force or firefighter or in corrections, and can go somewhere else, and get hired in two seconds.”

Elrich, however, said he supports a vaccine passport because it would limit the spread of the virus, especially during the current surge. He has faith that many residents would follow the rules, even if businesses have a hard time enforcing it.

Asked why he supports the passport but not an employee mandate, he said the impact of first responders leaving the county is much greater than private businesses losing customers. 

Tom Hucker

County Council Member Tom Hucker emphasized that he still needed time to review both the employee mandate and vaccine passport proposals. 

Regarding the employee mandate, Hucker has said he wants to see how many employees would leave, how the mandate would be implemented, and other details.

“I’m supportive of it conceptually, but the details really matter,” he said.

The vaccine passport has countywide implications, and he would want to see how it would be enforced.

“Businesses are all different. … How are you going to manage customers who don’t want to show proof of a vaccine?” he said.

Hans Riemer

Riemer is one of three council members who have voiced support for an employee vaccine mandate since it was proposed. The others are Will Jawando and Andrew Friedson.

He disagreed with Elrich that the change in service involving Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service was unavoidable, even with a mandate. He said few people will leave their job over a mandate, as shown by what has happened elsewhere, including Washington, D.C.

Riemer said county services already are being disrupted due to employees isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.

“We’re already working through far greater staff shortages than we would have ever experienced, versus that handful of employees that would have walked [out] over a vaccination mandate,” Riemer said.

He sided with Elrich, however, on the vaccine passport proposal. It’s an emergency measure that can be terminated once there is less transmission in the community — but for now, it provides peace of mind, he said.

“It’s just not hard to pull out your card or show a picture of your card and I think it’s a temporary measure. … At its best, it will improve the confidence of Montgomery County residents to patronize small business in the community,” he added. 

Devin Battley

Battley, a retired motorcycle shop owner in Gaithersburg, has said he probably will run for county executive, but has not filed as a candidate.

He believes that as many people as possible should get vaccinated, and supports the vaccine mandate for county employees. County residents deserve to know they are safe when dealing with county employees, and there is no guarantee of that without a mandate, he said.

“People have to be tough, people have to stand up, and if you keep running away from this vaccine, then you’re not doing any good at all,” Battley said.

He supports the vaccine passport proposal for similar reasons. He is skeptical of allowing religious exemptions, which he thinks people will abuse.

“There’s so many people that come up with silly excuses. … I can simply say, I’m a vaccine mandate person. You want to go out to … social environments, you need to be vaccinated,” he said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com