Business & Lobbying

Businesses weigh issues with ‘vaccine passports’

Photo illustration of a vaccine passport

The business community is grappling with the politically explosive issue of whether to require customers obtain “vaccine passports” in order to receive service or entry into an entertainment venue.

Biden administration officials say there will not be a federal mandate to provide proof of vaccination for public settings, while also leaving the door open to letting the private sector set its own policies.

Such policies would undoubtedly spark blowback in many parts of the country, but public health experts argue that paper or digital documentation could make some Americans more likely to attend an event, go to a gym or dine inside a restaurant if they knew everyone else was vaccinated.

The National Restaurant Association says the creation of a system to verify or validate vaccination status is best left to the government. Absent that, individual owners should be able to set their own rules on this issue.

“Without a government mandate, the decision for when and how to verify vaccine status should be left up to restaurant owners to determine what is best for their business and to clearly communicate that with their employees and customers,” said Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry at the National Restaurant Association.

That argument, however, is not sitting well with some governors in Republican-led states.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Monday prohibited vaccine passports, saying a system to track those who have been inoculated infringes on citizens’ rights. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last week said he would take executive action to prevent companies from requiring the passports.

Public health experts say those approaches might have the effect of preventing some customers from patronizing certain businesses.

“If someone is very worried about getting coronavirus, they would feel much more comfortable around others who have a much more decreased rate of carrying coronavirus,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner.

“I think it’s really important for us to change the framing from restricting people’s freedom to giving those who want additional peace of mind,” she said.

Wen suggested businesses like gyms and restaurants try out vaccine passports on a limited basis, while letting unvaccinated people use the businesses at other times.

“There are going to be some individuals for any number of reasons who will feel more secure in that environment,” she said.

Chuck Runyon, co-founder and CEO of Self Esteem Brands, said he doesn’t see the need for passports at the company’s nearly 2,400 gyms and studios in the U.S., including Anytime Fitness and The Bar Method.

“We currently don’t have plans to require a vaccine passport in our clubs or studios. The franchise owners of our Anytime Fitness, Basecamp and The Bar Method brands continue to follow strong sanitation and safety protocols in their clubs and studios,” he told The Hill.

Some business groups argue that a patchwork approach could create winners and losers.

The National Independent Venue Association, which represents concert and event spaces, said any verification requirements put in place must be fair to businesses across all sectors and draw on nationwide guidance from places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Independent venues will be making their own individual policy decisions, taking into account guidelines and recommendations from the CDC. That said, while vaccine verification is the hot topic, we have questions and concerns surrounding the effectiveness of only implementing verification at live events and not other businesses where people gather, the cost implications for small businesses, and equitable access and ethical issues surrounding such programs,” said the group’s spokesperson, Audrey Fix Schaefer.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki made it clear on Tuesday that requiring a vaccine credential would be up to the private and nonprofit sectors.

“The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” she said.

California plans to allow indoor concerts, theater performances and other private gatherings on April 15 after hitting a record low on COVID-19 infections. But the public health department announced that to attend, people will have to be tested or show proof of full vaccination.

Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, argued that proof of vaccination for a Broadway show or an indoor concert makes sense.

“Not for the reason of excluding anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated but to inspire confidence for people to return to public life,” he said. “We’re at the point in the pandemic where most of us want to return to public life, but to be able to do that in a way where we are confident that the people around us won’t put our health at risk.” 

He said the ideal case is that any measures, like requiring verification of the vaccine, are temporary and that exceptions should be made for certain establishments.

“Shopping and dining have suffered so much already and also there are ways to protect shoppers and diners in small groups. I think that the utility in something like a vaccine passport is if you work for a large employer,” he said.

The international travel industry, another industry hard-hit during the pandemic, has already started to form a consensus on the issue after the CDC last week said that fully vaccinated people can safely travel.

Global cruise operator Norwegian later announced it will restart operations in July, and all passengers with departure dates through October are required to be fully vaccinated and tested.

Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, said during an event with the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday that he thinks it’s almost certain there will be a requirement to prove full vaccination to travel to somewhere like Asia from the U.S.

“I am supportive of some kind of vaccine passport as a way to begin opening international borders,” he said.

But he said it’s likely to stop there.

“My guess is we’re not going to wind up doing that domestically, and hopefully we’ll get close enough to herd immunity that we’re OK,” he said. “I don’t see it happening in the U.S.”

Tags coronavirus covid-19 pandemic travel vaccine passports policy business customers president joe biden federal mandate Jen Psaki Ron DeSantis
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