Almost as soon as COVID-19 vaccines started going in arms, there was concern about the possibility of “vaccine passports.” In Republican-led states like Texas and Florida, governors quickly issued executive orders prohibiting universities and, in some cases, even private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. But in New York, the state health department released Excelsior Pass, the first and only government-issued vaccine passport that allows New Yorkers to enter proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test.
The idea behind Excelsior Pass was that New Yorkers would use it to go back into the world and ditch their masks; it’s something businesses can use to quickly verify customers are either COVID-negative or vaccinated. But as the state and rest of the country reopen, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the burden of proof is much lower. Even in New York—the long-heralded champion of pandemic resilience— the requirement for vaccine proof has not caught on even remotely to the degree that the release of a purpose-built app would suggest it would; at least, not yet.
Andrew Cuomo said himself, back at a press conference in May, businesses aren’t required to verify vaccination status beyond a simple “yes” or “no.” “They can check. They can ask at the door. They can ask when you’re seated at the table. Or not,” Governor Cuomo said. “There is no mandatory compliance that the state is imposing on the private vendors.”
As of June 1, just one million Excelsior Passes have been retrieved by the more than nine million fully vaccinated New York state residents. And it’s not clear how useful the pass is to those who have retrieved it; while some bars (mostly LGBTQ spaces) are requiring Excelsior Pass or some other hard proof to enter, a majority seem to be relying on the honor system, which the state accepts as “proof” for folks to be indoors, without a mask. When VICE contacted more than a dozen reopened bars around New York City to ask about how they verify proof of vaccination for maskless customers, we were met by recommendations to email a manager, all but one of whom never responded.
Jim Morrison, a manager at the Exley, an LGBTQ bar in Williamsburg, was one of the few to respond to our inquiry. Morrison told VICE, that bars requiring proof of vaccination to enter and/or not wear a mask indoors are going above and beyond the state guidelines.
Under New York’s reopening plan, businesses only need to ask someone whether they’re fully vaccinated in order to obtain proof. Bars choosing to require Excelsior Pass—a point of state pride that’s also extremely vulnerable to privacy hacks—are once again placing themselves in the position of policing their customers’ behavior and choices, after over a year of having to enforce masks, hand sanitization, social distancing, and other safety rules. As the New York Times recently reported, even bars that require the pass are passively enforcing it, and are subject to more of the same vitriol they’ve faced since the pandemic forced new safety protocol.
The Exley is among the many city bars that rely on the honor system, because that’s what most bars are doing. Customers are asked at the door if they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19; if they say yes, they’re allowed to take off their masks, and if they say no, they’re seated in a separate, socially distanced section. As Morrison told VICE, he expected that everyone would say yes, even if that were a lie, but he was surprised to come across two customers (so far) who copped to being between their first and second dose. The New York state health department declined to comment on the rules around self-verification, or whether it would change its policies about vaccine proof in private businesses.
“I was surprised because I assumed people would simply lie, in terms of self-certification, right? And her response was, ‘Oh, we're two weeks after our first shot,’” Morrison said. “I was like, ‘Cool, you're still welcome here, I'm not going to tell you you can't come in. That’s kind of rude. Just keep your mask on and go sit over there.’”
Morrison said the Exley’s policy on vaccine proof and masking comes from the same ethos that’s informed how they operated throughout the pandemic: Morrison wants to do as much as possible to keep the space open for the LGBTQ community, and keep employees on the payroll. Turning away customers for vaccine status, Morrison said, doesn’t make sense to him from a community or science perspective. (Morrison was referencing the CDC’s updated COVID-19 guidelines, which say vaccinated people are generally safe to be out and about without masks on, even in the company of unvaccinated people.)
But the decision to allow everyone into the bar also comes from fatigue around shouldering the burden of safety for staff and patrons since last March. “For this whole entire past year, the state has essentially abdicated its responsibility and put it on the shoulders of small businesses, especially bars and restaurants, to be papers, please enforcers,” Morrison said. “For once, I actually am grateful that the state has decided to say, ‘You don't need to check their papers. Self certification is fine.’”