As state and local authorities began to lift pandemic restrictions, some American lawmakers and political commentators have floated the idea of imposing a mandated COVID-19 vaccine passport, stirring heated controversy about the future of the post-pandemic world.
On Monday, the White House signaled it will not pursue a federally-mandated passport, but the executive office will work alongside partners in state and local governments, as well as the private sector, to help establish a framework for the idea.
“This is going to hit all — all parts of society. And so, naturally, the government is involved. But unlike parts of the world, the government here is not viewing its role as the place to create a passport, nor a place to hold the data of its citizens,” Andy Slavitt, Acting Administration of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said.
“We view this as something that the private sector is doing and will do..”
The White House also indicated that it will design a set of interagency rules and regulations for those states and organizations that want to implement the passport.
“We think we can essentially put forward guidelines and guidance,” Slavitt said.
“So we’re putting forward our principles very clearly. We will be even more clear in the time ahead. And we believe, based on everything we know, that that will influence the outcome in the way we describe.”
Supporters of the passport system claim that the move will benefit businesses that lost revenue and foot traffic last year after state and local authorities enacted measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The nation’s first vaccine passport system was launched last week in New York. The state government partnered with IBM to develop the technology.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced in a State of the State Address last week that the Excelsior Pass will be available “to help fast-track the reopening of businesses and event venues in accordance with New York State Department of Health guidelines.”
The voluntary platform will require individuals to confirm that they have either recently tested negative for the virus, received an antigen test result or prove that they have been vaccinated before they can engage in certain tasks or events.
“New Yorkers have proven they can follow public health guidance to beat back COVID, and the innovative Excelsior Pass is another tool in our new toolbox to fight the virus while allowing more sectors of the economy to reopen safely and keeping personal information secure,” Cuomo said.
The Excelsior Pass is required to enter major sporting events and stadiums, attend wedding receptions and other events, and gain entry to other venues with strictly defined social distancing measures.
While some figures at the national and state level defend the idea of a vaccine passport, a diverse body of conservative, libertarian and progressive Americans are damning the idea for its potential to erode civil liberties and erase barriers of privacy.
According to The Associated Press, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida indicated Monday that he would enact an executive order banning local governments and private businesses from requiring customers to prove that they have been immunized.
“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 participate in normal society,” DeSantis said.
The governor, flanked by House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, requested that the Legislature send him a bill codifying the prohibition into state law.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which takes a progressive stance on most constitutional issues, also condemned the idea after state Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said he had spoken to the White House about implementing the passport system.
“As tempting as vaccine passports may be for policymakers who want a quick fix to restart economic activity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, they present both public health and civil rights concerns that cannot be overlooked,” ACLU of Connecticut executive director David McGuire said, according to the ACLU.
“Depending on what information passports gather and how that information is collected, stored, shared, or used by the government or private businesses, vaccine passports may also raise serious privacy concerns.”
Former Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan issued a lengthy criticism of the idea on Twitter, claiming that it would be “dystopian.”
No vaccine passport. It doesn’t get much more dystopian than being required to show your “health papers” wherever you go.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 30, 2021
“A vaccine passport — a unified, centralized system for providing or denying access to everyday activities like shopping and dining — would be a nightmare for civil liberties and privacy, and it would exacerbate existing social disparities connected to wealth, privilege, and race.”
A vaccine passport—a unified, centralized system for providing or denying access to everyday activities like shopping and dining—would be a nightmare for civil liberties and privacy, and it would exacerbate existing social disparities connected to wealth, privilege, and race.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 31, 2021
“Let’s get the terms clear:” Amash said, “A ‘vaccine passport’ is not ‘what we already do.’”
“It’s not proof of vaccination for internat’l travel or schooling. It’s proof of vaccination for everyday living — groceries, restaurants, movies. It’s disingenuous to conflate the former with the latter.”
Let’s get the terms clear: A “vaccine passport” is not “what we already do.” It’s not proof of vaccination for internat’l travel or schooling. It’s proof of vaccination for everyday living—groceries, restaurants, movies. It’s disingenuous to conflate the former with the latter.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) March 30, 2021
Supporters of the vaccine passport believe that this is the logical endpoint of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the emergency waning, the passport can provide individuals with a sense of security, allowing them to engage in pre-pandemic activities.
Dissidents, however, suggest that a vaccine passport is another tool by which the government can reduce privacy and erode people’s civil liberties.
The government, as well as private businesses, have repeatedly pinned the virtues of political liberties and privacy against the vices of safety and accessibility. A vaccine passport system can offer people an opportunity to return to a normal pre-pandemic life, but it will come at a cost.