SFO Becomes First Major U.S. Airport to Mandate COVID Vaccinations for All Workers

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A United Airlines ticket agent helps a passenger check in for a flight at San Francisco International Airport on Sept. 2, 2020. A year ago, the airport was still very sleepy. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

All San Francisco International Airport workers are now required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced Tuesday.

Under the new mandate, the first of its kind for a U.S. airport, SFO tenants and contractors must ensure that all of their on-site employees have received the vaccine. That includes everyone from Starbucks baristas and airline employees to on-site construction workers and security checkpoint screeners employed by private contractors. Any workers granted exemptions for medical disability or “sincerely held” religious beliefs, have to be tested weekly for COVID-19.

The new rule goes into effect immediately.

“We know that vaccines are the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 transmission and reduce hospitalizations and deaths,” Breed said in a statement. “This new requirement supports our aggressive measures to protect the health and safety of our region and our continued economic recovery.”

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Employers will also be required to submit reports to the airport on the vaccine status of their workforce. Failure to comply could result in fines, the mayor's office said.

The airport, which offers free vaccines at its on-site medical clinic, has been considering the requirement for some time, said Doug Yakel, an SFO spokesperson.

“We are the first, but I doubt we'll be the last,” he said. “We've really been watching what's been going on in the air travel industry, and we've seen already airlines making it mandatory for their workforce. We see that continuing to grow.”

Some 46,000 people normally work at the airport, Yakel said, although he noted the number is lower now because of the ongoing pandemic. He said most employees have already been vaccinated.

In August 2020, SFO became the first U.S. airport to offer on-site rapid testing for the virus, and now administers tests to an average of 500 travelers a day.

“Really throughout the pandemic, we have been evolving our airport to keep employees and keep customers safe,” Yakel said.

The new mandate comes a day after the Biden administration announced plans to ease travel restrictions on foreign nationals flying to the U.S., who beginning in early November, will be allowed to enter the country after showing proof of vaccination and negative test results.

San Francisco is already requiring nearly all of its roughly 35,000 city workers to be fully vaccinated, or risk losing their jobs, a mandate it announced in June — among the first major U.S. cities to do so.

During the first year of the pandemic, SFO lost more passengers than any other major U.S. airport, according to an April San Francisco Chronicle analysis of Transportation Security Administration data. That drop was largely driven by a sharp decline in international travel, the analysis found. The data also showed the airport was still — in April — experiencing a slower-than-average recovery compared to other airports.

Unite Here Local 2, the union representing thousands of food-service workers at SFO — including concessions workers in the terminal and airline catering workers — welcomed Tuesday’s announcement.

“Our union was the single union most affected by lockdown layoffs. At one point, 98% of our members [nationally] were laid off,” said Ted Waechter, a Unite Here spokesperson. He added that nearly all members of the union are front-line workers in the tourism and hospitality industry, and the vast majority are vaccinated.

“As we fight to get back to work, to get people back on the job with their wages and health insurance, we really see a safe travel experience and a vaccination requirement as critical to making sure that we can come back stronger,” he said.