Leaders across the country in disagreement over whether to require COVID-19 vaccine passports


(NEW YORK) — As New York City turns to vaccine passports to help limit the spread of COVID-19, other cities have pushed back against similar measures, with leaders citing a wide range of concerns, from equity to security.

This week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the nation’s largest city would soon require proof of at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for indoor dining, indoor fitness facilities and indoor entertainment facilities.

“This is crucial because we know that this will encourage a lot more vaccination,” de Blasio said Tuesday at a press briefing announcing the policy. “The goal here is to convince everyone that this is the time. If we’re going to stop the delta variant, the time is now. And that means getting vaccinated right now.”

New York City is the first U.S. city to announce such a measure as the highly contagious delta variant is driving up cases nationwide.

When asked this week if Boston would do the same, acting Mayor Kim Janey said the city is focusing on vaccine access, while likening the idea of vaccine passports to slave papers and birtherism.

“There’s a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers,” the Democrat told ABC Boston affiliate WCVB Tuesday. “During slavery, post-slavery, as recent as you know, what immigrant population has to go through here. We heard Trump with the birth certificate nonsense. Here we want to make sure that we are not doing anything that would further create a barrier for residents of Boston or disproportionally impact BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities.”

Disparities in vaccination rates have raised concerns about vaccine passports disproportionately impacting communities of color. Vaccination rates among Black and Latino residents in Suffolk County — where Boston sits — lag behind those of white residents, state data shows.

Janey’s comments were met with some criticism, though, particularly from fellow mayoral candidates. Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell tweeted that “this kind of rhetoric is dangerous.”

“The acting mayor’s comments yesterday put people’s health at risk, plain and simple,” Campbell said during a press briefing Wednesday while outlining her platform policies, which include requiring proof of vaccination for crowded public indoor spaces, like restaurants and gyms. “Boston has an opportunity frankly to be an example to the rest of the country when it comes to getting residents vaccinated and preventing the spread of the delta variant.”

Following Janey’s comments, Michelle Wu, another Boston mayoral candidate, said she supports requiring proof of vaccination at restaurants, shops and other indoor venues. “Our leaders need to build trust in vaccines,” she said on Twitter Tuesday.

Janey further clarified her comments regarding vaccination “hurdles,” saying on Twitter Tuesday that “we must consider our shared history as we work to ensure an equitable public health and economic recovery.”

“While there are no current plans for business sector vaccination mandates, we are using data to inform targeted public health strategies,” she said. This includes working with the hospitality sector to build on-site vaccination clinics.

The debate comes as other leaders have continued to push back against vaccine passports and other mandates on the grounds of personal liberty.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — one of several state leaders who have moved to ban vaccine passports — spoke out against the measure during a press briefing Wednesday.

“I think the question is, is we can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state,” the Republican governor said. “I can tell ya — Florida, we’re a free state.”

Other GOP leaders have used more inflammatory rhetoric throughout the vaccination campaign by likening vaccination requirements to the Holocaust — drawing condemnation from Jewish organizations and fellow members of their party.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene apologized for comments she made in June that compared being required to wear masks in the House to the Holocaust. Republican Washington state Rep. Jim Walsh also issued an apology last month after he donned a yellow Star of David to protest COVID-19 restrictions, saying it was “inappropriate and offensive.”

In the latest incident, John Bennett, the chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, recently took to Facebook to equate vaccine passports to the yellow Star of David that Nazis forced Jewish people to wear.

“It’s not about the star, what it’s about is a totalitarian government pushing a communist agenda on top of us and forcing people against their own liberties to get this vaccine,” Bennett said in a video message Sunday following criticism to an earlier post on the Oklahoma Republican Party’s Facebook page, which included an image of the yellow Star of David with the word “Unvaccinated” on it.

Following Bennett’s initial post, local GOP leaders spoke out against the analogy, which the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City called “ill-informed and inappropriate.”

“It is sad and ironic that anyone would draw an analogy from the largest recorded genocide in the 20th century with public health attempts to save lives,” the organization said in a statement.

New York City’s vaccine mandate follows in the footsteps of the “health passes” in France and Italy.

“We do want to make as many of these settings as safe as possible,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said during a press briefing Tuesday. “And that means having them be for people who are only fully vaccinated. That is the thrust of the policy.”

Vaccine mandates are a smart policy for a dense urban place like New York City to help encourage vaccination, Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor, said.

“We have to start to think about new ways to get the population to recognize the value of these vaccines,” he said. “Creating some level of requirement is important. Of course that is going to be especially important in areas of high transmission, like health care organizations, or nursing homes … but also places where there’s potentially a high risk of transmission.”

“A city like New York, which experienced the worst of the pandemic … has a lot of concerns about a potential new surge,” he said.

Each city will have its own context and “nuance in applying public health measures,” Brownstein said, and there may not be a “one-size-fits-all approach” to increasing vaccination rates.

Following New York City’s announcement, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said during a news briefing Tuesday that the city is “interested” in the idea but there aren’t current plans to implement a similar plan.

“We’ll be watching to see how this plays out, but we don’t have a current plan to do something like that at the city level,” she said, noting that New Yorkers seem to have “embraced this vaccine passport idea a little bit more than has been embraced here in the Midwest and across Illinois.”

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