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Vaccine Passports: 'Scarlet Letter' Or Just The Ticket?

Pharmacist intern Ojashwi Giri hands a vaccination card to Linda Simansky, at Union Pharmacy in Newton, Mass. It's a kind of low-tech version of "vaccine passports" that have become the latest pandemic wedge issue.
Tovia Smith
Pharmacist intern Ojashwi Giri hands a vaccination card to Linda Simansky, at Union Pharmacy in Newton, Mass. It's a kind of low-tech version of "vaccine passports" that have become the latest pandemic wedge issue.

It's happening millions of times a day. Pharmacists jab an arm with the COVID-19 vaccine and hand over a paper card certifying that the shot was administered, and when.

"This is your ticket to freedom soon," smiles pharmacist intern Ojashwi Giri, as she hand-writes the name and birth date of another newly vaccinated customer on one of the coveted cards at Union Pharmacy in Newton, Mass. "I'm sure you're going to want to treasure this."

It's the low-tech version of the "vaccine passports" that have become the latest pandemic wedge issue. As states and businesses are debating and using them, Americans are deeply divided on whether businesses should require them to prove a person is immunized before boarding a plane, or entering a bar or a baseball game. What some see as a commonsense safety measure, others denounce as a violation of privacy and civil liberties.

To many, it's no-brainer — a ticket back to normal life. Linda Simansky clutched her vaccination card, and beamed at the prospect of being able to venture out again with greater confidence. She says she's all for the idea of vaccine passports, and would definitely be more likely to patronize places that ask for them at the door, ensuring everyone else inside is also low-risk.

"I know its awkward," she says, "but they're not asking for [anyone's] life story, they're just trying to keep people safe, and trying to also keep their business. So, I think it's a win-win."

"If we're going to end this nightmare, what we need is information," agrees Peter Wilson, a musician from Pheonix. "Some people pose less risk than others [...] and if people are making unsafe choices, the rest of us deserve to know. There's no sense in blindfolding ourselves."

Wilson sees it as no different than requiring students to get vaccines in order to attend school or camp. "We're just extending that to adults to keep everyone safe."

That's the idea behind New York state's "Excelsior Pass" that allows residents to flash a code from their phones which would earn them entry into anything from a Broadway show to a gym or even a private wedding. The nation's first such state-wide system, the Excelsior Pass has already been used at Madison Square Garden, Yankee stadium as well as smaller venues around the state, and while privacy features make it hard to pinpoint, state officials say hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers downloaded or at least started checking out the system in the two weeks since it launched.

Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, says a tool like that would be "essential" to reopening mass gathering venues like theaters that depend on a full house to survive.

"Why do you think these seats are so close to each other together behind me?" she says, pointing to the empty 2,640 theater seats on the image she uses as her Zoom backdrop. "Theaters [need] to put as many people in a space [as possible, in order to] pay for what's on stage."

Lisi says she was in the process of drawing up plans to use vaccine passports to screen patrons, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis preemptively banned businesses from requiring them.

"He's a pro-business proponent," Lisi says. "Why doesn't he allow businesses to do what we need to do then? The whole industry is relying on this. It's so frustrating."

But DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, who's also banned vaccine passports, as well as others argue they're a violation of privacy and civil liberties.

"It's completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society," DeSantis said.

Audra Young, from Haverill, Mass., who says she's not vaccinating because she doesn't trust it, agrees the passports are a bad idea.

"Just like it's your choice to own a gun, I mean, this is America, where we should have choice to pick what we want to do with our life," Young says. Vaccine passports "feel like it's going to be like a restricted society. It's like wearing the scarlet letter. It's crazy."

While much of the opposition to vaccine passports comes from those on the right who see it as a kind of Orwellian nightmare, there is concern on the left as well.

Judy Greenberg, of San Antonio, describes herself as "very liberal." She says she got the vaccine and hopes everyone else will too, but she's uncomfortable making people prove it for the privilege of dining out, for example.

"Being Jewish, I've always had this apprehension about [anyone saying] 'Show us your papers!'" Greenberg says, because it harkens back to the horrors Jews experienced in Nazi Germany. She's quick to acknowledge a vaccine passport is hardly the same thing, but she worries it would be prone to abuse. "It'll create two classes of human beings, almost like a caste system of vaccinated and unvaccinated. So then, what's next? It just makes me a little bit uneasy."

John Calvin Byrd III, has similar qualms. The self-described "far-left militant black man" lives in Los Angeles, and says he cringes at the thought of being seen as sharing the same concerns as "Trumpers," but he believes vaccine passports would impinge on his civil liberties. He says he and his family are not vaccinating, because they don't trust how fast the COVID-19 vaccines were rushed through the emergency authorization process, and because he doesn't trust Big Pharma.

But he thinks it's unfair to penalize people like him, by restricting his ability to go out for dinner, travel, or visit a park, museum, or grocery store.

"It's not like we committed a crime," he says. "We should be able to go and play and do whatever we want." He's also feeling pressure from his boss to vaccinate, and fears his decision not to, may cost him his job.

More broadly, Byrd worries that vaccine passports will exacerbate inequities for Black and Brown people, who are still less likely to be vaccinated — either by choice or because of lack of access.

"It puts people into separate groups, and one group has privileges and the other group does not [...] That keeps myself, my family and people like us in the margins," Byrd says.

Another concern is privacy. New York State Assembly member Ron Kim, says his state's "Excelsior Pass" is especially troublesome, given that it was developed in collaboration with a corporate giant, IBM.

"We're already dealing with big tech companies like Facebook and Google exploiting and extracting data without regular people even knowing that it's happening every day," Kim says. "Now we're allowing another path for companies to extract data and profit without our knowledge."

Both IBM and New York state officials, however, insist no personal data can be accessed or used for any such purpose. And no individual information is stored, or tracked. They say the Excelsior Pass only reads data that states already collect, to offer users the QR code that bouncers can scan to get a quick, clear green checkmark or a red "X." The same code can also indicate whether a user has recently tested negative for COVID-19, which many establishments screening customers may accept in lieu of a vaccination. For those without smart phones, results can be accessed on a computer and printed out instead.

Contrary to what many may think, given all the controversy, no state is mandating use of a vaccine passport; the Biden administration is also against any federal mandate, though officials say they're helping to develop guidance on privacy and equity issues. States can and do require large venues to screen customers for the coronavirus, but whether to do that with vaccine passports is still up to individual establishments.

Some venues see the apps as an easier, more reliable way to verify that patrons are low-risk for spreading the coronavirus. Digital apps may well be more difficult to hack than vaccination cards are to forge, and they'd likely be more effective and efficient than what many are doing now, which is taking everyone's temperature and reviewing health surveys that patrons answer on the honor system.

But other businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, are proceeding with caution. A "no shirt, no vaccine, no service" policy may come across as inhospitable, many say, and may turn of customers who restaurants need now more than ever. Also, many bars and restaurants are loath to take on the burden of vaccine enforcement, on top of what they already do, checking ID's to make sure everyone's legal to drink, and constantly policing customers who may have had too much to drink.

That said, establishments that are still struggling to survive a year into the pandemic are not ruling it out. Doug Bacon, president of Red Paint Hospitality Group, owns eight bars and restaurants in Boston; four remain closed, and four are open, but still unable to make money because of pandemic restrictions limiting capacity. If requiring vaccine passports would mean he could fully reopen, he says, "I might have to give in to that. "

Bacon says he's more open to requiring vaccine passport checks for staff. In the past year, all four of his open places had to shut down for a week or more, because an employee tested positive.

"We had to sanitize the whole restaurant and have everyone tested," he says. "Perishable food had to be thrown away, and I had no income, and I paid my staff and all my suppliers and my landlords while were closed, so it's been a tremendous additional financial burden on top of everything else."

Ultimately, some are hoping vaccine passports, will prove one last bitter pill to swallow to help hasten a return to normal. It may be the carrot that induces more people to vaccinate. Or, as with so much else that's been politicized during this pandemic, it may be seen as more of a stick, that only deepens divisions, stokes resentment and leads those who've been vaccine-hesitant to dig in their heels even more.

"This is just one more thing to throw in the mix that's going to divide our country even more," Young says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.