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Can businesses require employees and customers to get the COVID vaccine?

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Across the state, there’s a new debate – whether or not businesses should be allowed to require the COVID-19 vaccine for employees and customers.

Public schools have required vaccines for things like measles, rubella, and other diseases for decades, but the COVID-19 vaccine is slightly different because of how it was approved for use.

“By law, you can’t mandate a vaccine approved under an Emergency Use Authorization,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo during a press conference.

The state government can’t mandate it for anyone, but some local private businesses are.

“Private businesses have the right to control their premises and to set a standard,” says NY Senator Jeremy Cooney. “As long as it’s not discriminating against any sort of group or violating any civil rights.”

Happy Earth Tea on South Avenue in Rochester is requiring its staff to be vaccinated, but it will not be requiring it for customers considering how challenging it can be to verify proof of vaccination.

“In terms of a mandate for our customers, that would be, I think, really difficult for us to enforce,” says Mary Boland, founder and owner of Happy Earth Tea. “Putting that onus on the small businesses, I think, is very difficult.”

At Record Archive in Rochester, 16 out of 17 staff members have received the vaccine without a mandate from the store. Managers say they’re not going to make a rule about employees or customers being vaccinated, but they are highly recommending it.

“Mandates are one of those things … it instantly puts people on the defense,” says Alayna Alderman, the VP of Record Archive, “So I don’t think it’s ever a good position to have. I can say that I strongly suggest it, I strongly encourage.”

Other businesses are leaving it up to employees and customers to decide on their own. Park Ave Pets’ owner sent News10NBC a statement saying “I do not believe it is up to me to try to control people’s choices regarding their own bodies or their health.”

So, News10NBC went to an expert to ask… if businesses are requiring the vaccine, are they breaking the law?

“The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidelines saying that employers can require that employees have the vaccine in order to work,” says Karen Sanders, senior counsel with the Tully Rinckey law firm.

But, there’s a catch – if employers are going to require the vaccine, they have to be mindful of possible exemptions.

“There needs to be exceptions for people who have disabilities who are unable to get vaccines or potentially religious exemptions,” says Sanders.

Sanders also pointed out that there are some benefits for employers that require the vaccine for customers. Restaurants, for example, can allow more people in (and potentially make more money) if the vaccine is required for guests.

“The customers have a choice, too,” says Sanders. “If they don’t want to be vaccinated they simply just don’t go to that establishment.”

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