RULES RELATED TO the ever-changing pandemic, where the light at the end of the tunnel seemed to quickly shift to a picture of dark days ahead, can be hard to agree on. 

In rejecting the idea of requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants or other gathering spots, Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey took the debate a few steps further, invoking the specter of slavery and birtherism in waving off the kind of measures New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday.

Janey, whose every move is scrutinized as she simultaneously oversees city government while campaigning to be elected in the open mayor’s race, seemed to be looking for a forceful way to make clear her reluctance to impose such requirements. But her effort to tie the issue to the racist legacy of the country’s history of slavery as well as the more recent race-based charges by Donald Trump questioning Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president seemed to go overboard, awkwardly trying to connect difficult public health questions to the current focus on issues of racism and racial justice. 

The Boston Herald first reported on Janey’s comments made at a lunch event connected to the Boston Police Department’s National Night Out public safety effort. 

“There’s a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers,” Janey said later in response to a question from WCVB reporter Sharman Sacchetti asking whether she’s considering the type of new rules being imposed in New York. Janey went on to cite the periods during and after slavery, requirements imposed on immigrants, and Trump’s efforts to question whether Obama was born in the US with “the birth certificate nonsense.” 

Janey emphasized the need to focus on promoting vaccination and not doing anything to put barriers up or “disproportionately impact BIPOC communities,” invoking the shorthand reference for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Her mayoral rivals immediately pounced. Andrea Campbell called the comments dangerous rhetoric. “Showing proof of vaccination is not slavery or birtherism,” she said. Michelle Wu said, “Anyone in a position of leadership should be using that position to build trust in vaccines.” A spokeswoman for Annissa Essaibi George said, “We need to stop making this a politically charged issue.”

Some restaurants and other businesses are beginning to ask for proof of vaccination, and President Biden voiced support for such rules. “You have to give proof that you’ve been vaccinated or you can’t come in,” he said in summarizing his view.

But city-imposed requirements would present huge hurdles. “The logistics of monitoring the city’s 25,000 restaurants and bars could be challenging — and contentious,” the New York Times reports about the effort there. One New York city councilor says he’s considering filing suit to try to block the plan.

“We know that those types of things are difficult to enforce,” Janey said. 

Janey’s reluctance to have the city jump in with such regulations right now may be reasonable and understandable. But drawing analogies between complicated current public health issues and horrible chapters of the past to make a point is always a fraught affair.