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If you love the culture war, just wait for ‘vaccine passports’

Juan Carlos Guerrero, 62, holds his second shot reminder card as he speaks to a health care worker after having received a dose of the Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, at the Miami-Dade County Tropical Park vaccination site in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

If you love the culture war but think it’s been waning lately or that struggles over mask-wearing have become boring, take heart. Vaccine passports are looming.

In January, President Biden signed an executive order that directs government agencies to find ways to link COVID-19 vaccinations to vaccine cards, which are known as “international certificates of vaccination or prophylaxis,” with the idea of creating a digital version.

The thought is that, if you want to travel, attend an event or perhaps even dine out, a business might require you to flash your passport to gain entry.

Cue the apocalypse.

Georgia’s controversial Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called it Biden’s “mark of the beast.” Other Republicans, mainly those on the far right of the spectrum, vowed to either outlaw it in Congress — a difficult thing to do without a majority — or to encourage state legislatures to do so, which is much more likely.

Even in Canada, where a similar idea is floating, public opposition has been strong. The Ottawa Citizen editorialized that, “Having to ‘show your papers’ for immunization inside Canada seems an overbearing use of state power in a liberal democracy.”

Which means it’s time for a chill pill.

The plan isn’t as sinister as it might sound. That doesn’t mean it is good, however.

First, it’s important to remember that a proof of certain vaccinations always has been a part of international travel to certain countries, just as many states require it for enrolling children in school. Second, it would be private businesses, not the government, that might try to implement such a plan. And third, the technical and legal details of actually creating such a passport are likely to make it impossible.

White House officials have stressed that the administration is not trying to create a national vaccination database, nor does it want to require you to show your card anywhere. Its aim is to establish some basic guidelines that would help states and private businesses, should they want to set up such a system.

Which isn’t a lot of comfort. A lot of people won’t be keen to state databases or private companies tracking their coronavirus status. And Americans are litigious.

New York is the only state to approach the idea so far, launching something it calls an “Excelsior Pass.” This is a free app residents can use to show a business they either have recently tested negative for COVID-19 or are vaccinated. But it’s entirely voluntary.

In Las Vegas, The Review-Journal recently reported that casinos are anxious to foster a sense of confidence and security for their customers, but they are shying away from requiring vaccinations.

The paper quoted Alan Feldman of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, who said, “It’s very difficult in a state like Nevada, which is in a place of frontier spirit as all of the Mountain West states are, to put down such hard and fast rules.”

That’s insightful, and many Utahns would agree. But that spirit isn’t confined to the Mountain West. Right now, even as some states see surges in COVID-19 cases, millions of people seem perfectly fine packing airplanes, not knowing whether the person next to them is positive or negative. United Airlines announced this week it will hire 300 more pilots to meet the demand. California amusement parks are set to reopen this month, albeit to limited capacity. And the hordes packing spring break hot spots in recent weeks seemed hardly concerned with who had vaccines.

I will admit to a feeling of joy when I received my own vaccination card. I wouldn’t mind showing it for entry into a restaurant, provided I don’t misplace it between now and then. Mostly, however, it’s a symbol that all the problems of the past year may soon be ending.

I suspect the passport idea will take root in some quarters, but the obstacles will be too great.

The Miami Heat, for example, has plans to offer prime seating at basketball games to people who can show proof of vaccinations. But the plan is vague, relying on people to show cards they received at the time they were vaccinated. Counterfeiting a card seems too easy.

The Wall Street Journal quoted an attorney for a sports litigation firm saying such a policy would be so complex and risky that it’s easier to just limit seats while continuing to make people socially distance, wear masks and refrain from yelling too much.

Given legal concerns about health privacy, the attorney said of such preferred seating, “I don’t see that getting implemented in any large-scale manner at all in 2021.”

And by 2022? Perhaps, if we’re lucky, the main concern by then will return to flu vaccinations, and no one in the past has made you prove you had one of those.