NYC vaccination requirement becomes a flashpoint for U.N.

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United Nations — The Biden administration worries that this year's U.N. General Assembly could become a COVID-19 "superspreader event" as world leaders descend on New York City without necessarily abiding by local vaccine requirements. On Friday, President Biden's U.N. Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told CBS News at a press conference, "We are concerned about the U.N. event being a superspreader event, and that we need to take all measures to ensure that it does not become a superspreader event."

Unlike last year, when COVID-19 pandemic forced the largest annual gathering of world leaders to go virtual, this year, a hybrid format means that heads of state can either send in a video or appear in person.

Despite a note from Thomas-Greenfield urging diplomats to send in videos, more than 100 presidents, prime ministers and others are set to give in-person speeches at the two-week event. Mr. Biden will be attending with a scaled-down White House entourage.

Vaccination rules quickly became a flashpoint.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who says he is unvaccinated but has antibodies from a COVID-19 infection last year, announced he would attend in person, defying the New York City vaccine requirement.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, meeting with Abdulla Shahid, right, president-elect of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, on Sept. 14, 2021 at U.N. headquarters in New York City.  / Credit: United Nations Photo/Eskinder Debebe via AP
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, meeting with Abdulla Shahid, right, president-elect of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, on Sept. 14, 2021 at U.N. headquarters in New York City. / Credit: United Nations Photo/Eskinder Debebe via AP

In a letter on September 9, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office for International Affairs and the city health commissioner informed the president-elect of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, that the gathering would be covered by a local law requiring proof of vaccination for indoor venues like dining and entertainment.

"Indoor entertainment also includes 'convention centers,' and the U.N. General Assembly Hall qualifies as a convention center," the letter said.

Shahid wrote to all U.N. member states "strongly" supporting the measure and pledging to implement it. But then, in a diplomatic accommodation, Shahid sent a new letter Thursday saying, "I would like to advise delegations that the honour system related to vaccinations … remains in place."

The decision to invoke the "honour system" came after Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia weighed in, saying he was "surprised and disappointed" by the idea of requiring proof of vaccination to enter the General Assembly Hall. Nebenzia called it "discriminatory" and contrary to the 1947 agreement between the U.S. and the U.N. that establishes the world body's international status.

Asked about the Russian opposition to the requirement on Thursday at his press conference, the mayor was defiant.

"My simple statement to begin is if the Russian ambassador is against it, I'm for it," de Blasio said.

"I spoke to Secretary General Guterres two weeks ago, and we had a very good conversation. He's been outstanding in trying to push the highest health standards for the General Assembly," de Blasio said, adding, "We understand the United Nations is a particular organization, has its own rules and its own jurisdiction."

The honor system, the Secretary General's spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Friday, means that "by swiping a badge to enter the General Assembly Hall, delegates attest that they are fully vaccinated, that they have not tested positive for COVID‑19 in the last 10 days [and] have no symptoms."

The mayor also announced that the city would be opening a pop-up testing and vaccination site at U.N. headquarters to provide free COVID-19 tests as well as the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Thomas-Greenfield said she'll be getting a test there herself Monday morning.

Asked by CBS News about the risk of so many people coming into New York from so many countries, she said, "Leaders have to be responsible, and they have to take responsibility for their actions and ensure that their actions do not lead to jeopardizing the health and safety of the people of New York, of all of the participants here at the United Nations, and that they don't take COVID back to their home countries."

The General Assembly meeting comes after a rough year at U.N. Headquarters, where COVID-19 has taken a toll. Hundreds of staff, diplomats, and members of the press were infected, and meetings and other work went remote for months. Contact tracing was voluntary, and a confidential WhatsApp group, seen by CBS News, was the main way that many diplomats found out about colleagues who were infected with COVID.

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