Conservatives have opened up the latest front in the culture war, and it’s “vaccine passports.”
On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order banning the state and local governments, as well as organizations receiving state funding, from requiring documentation of inoculation.
"Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives,” Abbott said in a statement announcing the move. “We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health—and we will do so without treading on Texans' personal freedoms."
The “passport” is some form of documentation, either digital or physical, that shows your vaccination status. In broad use, these passports could be used by sports arenas, music venues, and other spaces to ensure that the events they hold are as safe as possible. Such passports could also help the federal and government and states maintain the veneer of safety as they accelerate toward reopening; this week, President Joe Biden pushed the deadline for states to make vaccines available to all adults to April 19.
Last month, New York became the first state to roll out such a voluntary program, using an app created by IBM called Excelsior Pass, and it’s been used at NBA and NHL games in New York. Also last month, Walmart announced a plan to make the vaccine records of people inoculated at their stores available digitally.
But so far, the backlash has outpaced the project itself.
Texas is one of four states whose governors have either signed laws or announced executive orders barring these so-called “passports,” along with Florida, Idaho, and Utah. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the first governor to weigh in, signed an executive order last week that not only bars state agencies from issuing such documents but also bans businesses from requiring customers to be vaccinated as well.
"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 be able to participate in normal society," DeSantis said at a press conference last week.
On Wednesday, a group of more than two dozen House Republicans led by Rep. Russ Fulcher sent a letter to the White House to “express concern” about how such a program “may endanger our constituent’s data privacy, as well as potential violations” of HIPPA, the national health privacy standards.
It’s yet another example of the political lines drawn over COVID-19. Some states, schools, and workplaces have required other vaccinations for years, such as measles and tetanus shots. And the GOP
“In some ways, this is not unusual at all,” Jeff Hirsch, a University of North Carolina law professor who focuses on labor law, told VICE News. “Workplaces have done this for a long time too, particularly in the healthcare setting.”
Hirsch said that typically, businesses are allowed to do whatever they want so long as they aren’t discriminating. “Governments passing something changes the equation completely,” he said, noting that it was an “interesting twist” away from the traditionally laissez-faire approach Republicans have taken towards business self-conduct.
So far, the Biden White House has attempted to avoid the emerging controversy as it gains currency on the right. Though the number of Americans who’ve said they would get the vaccine has steadily increased over the past year—and a third of the country has been vaccinated, as an average of 3 million doses a day have been given over the past week, according to NPR—a Pew poll in March found that just 56 percent of Republicans planned to get the vaccine, in contrast to 83 percent of Democrats.
“The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier this week. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical advisor and a bogeyman on the right, also said earlier this week that such documents are “not going to be mandated from the federal government.”
But for now, conservatives are howling about it. In a Wednesday tweet, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy addressed the issue after giving the appropriate penance to former President Donald Trump and Operation Warp Speed for the “safe vaccines.”
“But forcing Americans to carry a ‘vaccine passport’ to go about daily life is unacceptable in a free society,” McCarthy said. “That's something you'd expect in Communist China. Not in the United States of America.”