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


Now, let's add a little something to the debate over vaccine passports. People keep asking, should we have them, should we not? The reality is that in many places, we already do. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: To many, it's a no-brainer. Just like passengers are screened before boarding planes for the safety of everyone, so, too, should everyone entering a crowded space be checked to ensure their low risk for spreading COVID.

PETER WILSON: If we're going to end this nightmare, what we need is information. And if people are making unsafe choices, the rest of us deserve to know.

SMITH: Peter Wilson, a musician from Phoenix, says vaccine passports as a ticket back to normal life.

WILSON: You know, you have to vaccinate children to go to school, for other things. We're just extending that to adults to keep everybody safe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Well, this is your ticket to freedom soon.

SMITH: At the Union Pharmacy just outside Boston, a pharmacist intern hands a proof of vaccination card to Linda Simansky.

LINDA SIMANSKY: Thank you so much.


SMITH: It's a low-tech version of the digital vaccine passport that could become ubiquitous. New York state's Excelsior Pass already allows residents to flash a code from their phones to earn their way into anything from a Broadway show or a gym to a private wedding. Simansky says she would be more apt to go places that are making sure everyone's vaccinated.

SIMANSKY: I know it's awkward, but they're not asking for their 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.

SMITH: Indeed, many businesses are already experimenting with it, from sports teams to concert venues. Judy Lisi would love to. She heads the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, the kind of place, she says, that depends on a full house.

JUDY LISI: Why do you think all these seats are so close to each other behind me? I mean, the whole history of theater is you put as many people in a space as you can so you can afford to pay for what's onstage.

SMITH: Lisi says she was crushed when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banned businesses from requiring a vaccine passport.

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

SMITH: DeSantis and other governors who've also taken positions against vaccine passports argue they're a violation of privacy and civil liberties. Audra Young, who lives north of Boston, agrees.

AUDRA YOUNG: You know, just like it's your choice to own a gun, I mean, this is America, where we should have the choice to pick what we want to do with our life. If you're going to tell us that we can't come out or we can't do this, I mean, that's not fair.

SMITH: While much of the opposition to vaccine passports comes from the right, there is concern on the left, as well.

JUDY GREENBERG: Being Jewish, I've always had this apprehension about, you know, show us your papers. And...

SMITH: Judy Greenberg, a Texan who describes herself as very liberal, says she got the vaccine and hopes everyone will. But she's uncomfortable making people prove it for the privilege of, say, dining out.

GREENBERG: It'll create two classes of human beings, and it becomes more like a - almost like a caste system of vaccinated versus unvaccinated. So then what's next? It just makes me a little bit uneasy.

SMITH: John Calvin Byrd III has similar concerns. A self-described far-left militant Black man in LA, he says his family is not vaccinating because he doesn't trust Big Pharma. And now he worries that vaccine passports will exacerbate inequities for people of color who are still getting vaccinated at disproportionately lower rates, either by choice or because of lack of access.

JOHN CALVIN BYRD III: I don't want my kids being alienated, unable to go to school or go to a park or travel or go to a museum or anything that just keeps myself, my family, people like us in the margins.

SMITH: Byrd also worries about privacy, as does New York State Assembly member Ron Kim, especially in New York, Kim says, where the vaccine passport is a collaboration between the state and tech giant IBM.

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

SMITH: Both IBM and New York state officials insist no personal data can be accessed or used for any such purpose. Also, they say their app can flash a negative COVID test in lieu of a vaccine. And those without smartphones can print a hard copy instead. Officials hope the app may induce more people to get the vaccine, though many who see vaccine passports as more stick than carrot may just dig in their heels. But as officials note, the app is voluntary. It's just a convenience, they say, to help streamline the lines at the doors as mass gatherings start to become normal again.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.