Terry Schwadron

Apr 3, 2021

5 min read

A Silly Flap: Covid Passports

Terry H. Schwadron

April 3, 2021

It took us about 30 seconds to seek and receive New York State’s voluntary online “excelsior pass,” a phone app offering confirmation of our coronavirus vaccinations. Here’s the link.

Of course, before that, we had taken photos of the oversized card showing the signatures that we had received the vaccines as easier to carry with us in case a business, restaurant or, eventually, an airline asked. New York state saw it as a boost for businesses.

We didn’t give the effort more than a shrug of concern. It was minimal information and a confirmation of what already is in state health department records and simply makes the information more convenient — no public sharing of private information.

This particular effort was sponsored by the state working with IBM, but on a federal level, the Joe Biden administration says it is sitting this one out, and leaving it to the private sector to handle if proof of vaccines is helpful. Specifically, the White House says it will not create a federal mandate requiring all residents to obtain a single vaccination credential, nor create a centralized, universal federal vaccination database.

Nevertheless, to hear that vaccine “passports” are the new battleline in the partisan divide seems, well, far-fetched. To hear Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark, it was “Orwellian” for the government to demand them and Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, this is a breach of our personal liberty, an overreach by government,“the mark of the beast” and reason for legislation just introduced to banning passports and prohibiting any school or business that requires a vaccine, or even a mask, from receiving federal funds.

Of course, over years, we got vaccinations for our children to go to school out of concern for their health and that of other students, and we have proudly worn “I voted” stickers after our biennial stop at the nearby polling place. If you don’t believe in vaccinations, keep your kids home for home-schooling.

Acknowledging having taken the vaccine jabs and letting a restaurant know that we had sought medical protection seemed somewhere between innocuous and helpful — one fewer headache for the business owner.

But if you’re against an app that shows you have gotten the vaccines, don’t complain about a slow return of confidence in fully opened businesses.

Making It Political

Republicans basically are making it a political dispute that businesses and local governments may require vaccine passports for people to get access to activities, buildings or events. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has demanded his state legislature pass a law forbidding passes showing proof of coronavirus vaccination. In Connecticut, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont is looking to add passports when vaccinations reach a better percentage of the population. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Republican, thinks the idea is “un-American.”

Republicans opposing the idea repeatedly and wrongly link it to Biden and government overreach.

It seems another outbreak of concern about nanny states that fly in the face of businesses being able to open up most safely or easily. Clearly, the flap has more to do with providing cover to largely Republican voters who have taken on the belief that taking the vaccine is anti-individual than it does either with encouraging business or public health — which is the argument for those asking for such passports already in use in places like Israel. Whether you run an airline, cruise ship, restaurant, or baseball team, passports simply would allow people to enter with more confidence, and getting the business back on track would be easier.

Businesses themselves are split.

A handful of baseball teams, including the New York Mets, New York Yankees, and San Francisco Giants, will require proof of vaccination or proof of a recent negative coronavirus test to enter their stadiums, which are operating at sharply limited capacities, for example. Rutgers University, the largest public college in New Jersey, also recently announced it would require all its students to be vaccinated as a condition of enrollment beginning in September. The International Air Transport Association is testing a COVID-19 passport, called the Travel Pass, that will allow passengers to provide information about testing and vaccination, in addition to checking the COVID-19 requirements for their destination. Practically, the existing requirements to show a negative coronavirus test are already causing hours-long waits, and phone apps would speed review.

But widespread resistance to the idea could kill it before it even really gets going. Many businesses are saying they are worried about the impracticality of enforcing a vaccination requirement, particularly at theaters, concert halls, restaurants, hair salons, and any other business that relies on indoor gatherings. Doing so, some said, could alienate some customers, hurt revenue, and even lead to safety concerns.

Precedent in Yellow Fever

There is precedent for requiring such vaccine proof, of course. In 1937, a new vaccine was introduced to halt yellow fever, a highly infectious, mosquito-borne disease that killed tens of thousands a year particularly in warmer port cities. There still is no cure for it, but by the 1950s, the World Health Organization issued an International Certification for Vaccination or Prophylaxis, a yellow-colored paper also known as a Yellow Card, that passed as proof of vaccination. It remains a standard document for U.S. travelers to parts of South America and Africa, according to the CDC.

In like fashion, the European Union, China, and Japan are working to launch their own digital programs for coronavirus, following the example in Israel. The White House says that states can develop their own and the federal government is helping to develop standards for equity and privacy that these programs need to uphold. The data privacy issue is emerging as a key factor in the United States, though the state health departments already have records of the vaccines.

Conservatives already question the threat posed by coronavirus as well as programs to bring the virus under control. Misinformation about the virus has circulated widely on social media and in some cases from public officials or media outlets, and has conditioned many people to be suspicious of what experts regard as standard protocols for public health.

Without government backing for passports, it is unclear what will move small or large employers to require proof of vaccination or negative testing from employees — thus guaranteeing a continuation of this cycle of disease, quarantine and shutdowns, and re-openings.

The American Public Health Association worries that the practice will further politicize the vaccine rollout, make health inequities worse, and even lull vaccinated people into a false sense of security. The National Independent Venues Association, which represents local performance spaces across the country, said in a statement that spotty use would raise questions about effectiveness for businesses.
We’ve seen opposition to mask-wearing rules — and the resulting coronavirus spikes. In much the same way, lack of a passport system will delay whatever transition we face to any return to normality.