Recently, I was in a packed Safeway, with everyone doing that COVID avoidance dance where you shuffle around making no eye contact, when I noticed a man coming the other way down an aisle.
He stood out for his sweatshirt, which read: “Relax! I’m double-shot vaccinated.”
“Great shirt,” I said when I reached him. “Is it true?”
He seemed to know I was joking, because he laughed under his mask. But then he whipped out his wallet and showed me a card with the dates of his two Pfizer shots. We chatted for about 30 seconds, mostly him telling his story about how and where he had scored the vaccine.
Later I realized this was the first small talk I’d shared in a store for months. The knowledge that he was double-shot vaccinated — it really had made me relax a bit.
Now I’m not suggesting that all of you who have been vaccinated ought to have “Vs” tattooed on your foreheads. But I do think this growing controversy about so-called “vaccine passports” is about to become a huge issue in society.
In short, the state of New York last week announced a voluntary program called Excelsior, a phone app, in which businesses can screen customers for whether they’ve had the vaccine or not. The app can be used to scan you in, like an airport boarding pass. For now, it’s limited to 10,000-person capacity venues such as Madison Square Garden, but it could later be used by everything from dentist offices to coffee shops.
This caused Florida to announce it would go in exactly the opposite direction, with the governor there seeking to bar any business from using a vax-screening system.
Overnight, the whole premise has displaced the mask as the leading flashpoint in our national culture war. If you’re for vaccine passports, you’re a liberal fascist. If you’re against them, you’re a selfish anti-vax Luddite.
“Is there anything more Orwellian than a ‘vaccine passport’ that Americans would need to travel within America?” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who is vying to become the new Trump.
I don’t know, I just had to give a proof of vaccination against measles and other diseases so that my kids could be admitted into college. So it’s hardly a new concept.
But the idea that a vaccination profile might be required at everything from the corner bar to symphony hall is a new one — and something we seem to be racing toward without setting up any ground rules first.
No government here that I know of, federal, state or local, has sought to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine. But some local businesses have said they will only allow workers back into offices if they’re vaccinated — which is creeping right up to the line of requiring it.
A bill in the state Legislature in Olympia, sponsored by Republicans, would have barred requiring the COVID-19 vaccine “as a condition of employment … or for admittance to any place of business or entertainment, or access to any mode of transportation,” for at least the first three years of a vaccine’s use. It didn’t get a hearing.
I’m generally leery about mandatory vaccination (especially with brand-new vaccines). At the same time, it’s undeniable it would be a relief to have some sort of COVID-19 health screening in place before getting on a plane or going to a crowded music show.
Flights and music tend to be discretionary. But going back to my experience at the Safeway: Imagine if grocery stores start requiring you to tap a vaccine phone app to get in, as a way to protect their own workers and put customers more at ease. It would make the vaccine effectively mandatory; it’s get it or you don’t eat.
“If vaccines become a passport to doing different things, we’re going to see the communities that have been already hardest hit by COVID being left behind,” Nicole Errett, a UW public health expert, told The New York Times.
The upside, of opening up faster, is irresistible. Microsoft is working in a consortium of medicine and Big Tech, called the Vaccination Credential Initiative. Slides from its early meetings show they are planning for a vax badge that would “enable a user to access a signed copy of their clinical data in a standard format, that can then be shared with another entity such as an airline, hotel, school, business, or event organizer.”
A doctor at one meeting said his hospital already uses a similar COVID pass. “Cleared for work today,” said a screen capture from his phone, which also showed the dates of his shots.
It’s easy to see how widespread these could instantly become. Both you and the babysitter you’re thinking of hiring could vet the other’s immunization status. Same with guests at dinner parties, or entire countries wishing to reopen to tourist travelers. Or blind dates.
Creepy? Based on human and corporate interest, it seems like they’re coming regardless. Before they’re suddenly everywhere, better to figure out some rules for them now — such as making sure that everyone, vaccinated or not, still has access to essential services.
Like me — I’m not eligible for the shot yet. I guess I could go around wearing a sweatshirt that says “Stand back! I’m not vaccinated,” but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.