New York Launches COVID Passport

The Excelsior Pass is the nation's first. Will it start a trend?

As of Friday, residents of New York state can display an Excelsior Pass to prove they’re vaccinated or have recently passed a COVID test. Fears of a two-tier society are naturally emerging.

USA Today (“New York launches nation’s first ‘vaccine passports.’ Others are working on similar ideas, but many details must be worked out.“):

Starting Friday, New Yorkers will be able to pull up a code on their cell phone or a printout to prove they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or recently tested negative for the virus that causes it.

The first-in-the-nation certification, called the Excelsior Pass, will be useful first at large-scale venues like Madison Square Garden, but next week will be accepted at dozens of event, arts and entertainment venues statewide. It already enables people to increase the size of a wedding party, or other catered event.

The app, championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support the recovery of industries most affected by the pandemic, is funded by the state and available for free to businesses and anyone with vaccination records or test results in New York.

Like an airline boarding pass, people will be able to prove their health status with a digital QR code – or “quick response” machine-readable label. They’ll need to download the Excelsior Pass app, enter their name, date of birth, zip code and answer a series of personal questions to confirm their identity. The data will come from the state’s vaccine registry and also will be linked to testing data from a number of pre-approved testing companies.

The state’s official announcement argues that this will “fast-track” re-opening of businesses that have been closed or operating under reduced capacity owing to COVID restrictions. It is currently voluntary and personal data safeguarded using blockchain technology:

While some businesses have been able to operate by reducing capacity or by having their employees work from home, many others, like performing arts and sporting events with fans, which involve large, dense gatherings, have only just been able to re-open under strict health and safety guidelines. As more New Yorkers are being vaccinated, these activities will be permitted to resume in accordance with new public health guidelines, and this new mobile app can help to further fast-track the reopening of these venues. 

As part of major stadium and arena reopening guidelines announced by the Governor on February 10, venues must ensure that all staff and spectators receive a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the event. During this pilot program, a subset of predetermined participants will be able to use the pass to confirm their recent negative COVID-19 test and gain entry to these events at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden.

Robust privacy protections are woven throughout the digital health pass solution, giving individuals a secure, verifiable and trusted way to maintain control of their personal health information using an encrypted digital smartphone wallet or printed credential. Each participant will be able to determine if they would like to use it -and if so, what passes they wish to use for which purpose -all without sharing their underlying personal data. User data is always kept completely confidential, and participation is voluntary. The QR code only informs the venue if a pass is valid or invalid.

There are still quite a few technical issues to be worked out but the larger concerns are social. Back to the USA Today report:

Amy Fairchild, dean of Ohio State University and a historian and ethicist, said the biggest challenges with such certifications will be cultural not technological.

[…]

But whether American consumers and businesses will accept the idea of providing proof before entry is not so obvious, she said. Just as many Americans have resisted wearing masks during the pandemic, some will reject the idea of showing a certificate to get into a ballgame or night club.

Requiring vaccination “is not something we have done before within this country outside of school systems and hospitals,” said Fairchild, adding it would incredibly useful from a public health standpoint and could eventually be expanded to cover flu and measles shots – if public opinion would allow it.

“To the extent that it could be used to help build up our public health infrastructure, that would be fabulous,” she said.

But such efforts have typically fallen apart because of cultural resistance to the idea of being required to do things. “We are ideologically as a culture pretty resistant to the idea of mandates unless it’s kids.”

Jazz Shaw, for one, is not happy.

The first thing to point out here is that New York State has thus far vaccinated roughly half of its eligible citizens. That means that the other half of the state will now be shut out of nearly all nonessential activities unless they can find someplace to be tested and “verified” every few days. And if you think this only applies to things like basketball games, guess again. The state has specifically listed wedding receptions as events that will require a scanner at the door and an immunity passport to gain entrance. As of this morning, CNN is saying that 14.7 percent of adults in the United States are fully vaccinated at this point, so the disparity is vastly greater if a plan like this shows up at the national level.

While it won’t be part of the initial rollout, large retail chains and even grocery stores are reportedly studying how this system could be put into effect at their establishments. You can’t be barred from shopping for food and other essentials entirely, but some stores are considering setting up separate entrances for those with and without the passport or having some shopping hours restricted for only those who pass muster.

I’ve gone through the Post’s “explainer” of how the system operates and I don’t see any exceptions listed for people with comorbidities or other underlying conditions that could lead their doctors to recommend that they avoid the vaccine. So if you either choose not to be vaccinated or are medically disqualified from receiving it, at least in New York, you will officially be a second-class citizen on April 2nd. Without the pass, you will be part of a new class of pariahs who are barred from mingling with the new, upper class of people with immunity, or those who purchase a few days of “normalcy” by showing a negative COVID test result.

As noted in my post “Incentivizing COVID Vaccination,” Israel launched their version of this, the Green Pass, a few weeks ago and is wrestling with these issues. They’re a more compliant society so they’re getting less pushback than will likely be the case here.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that those without the passport are being denied access to activities but that those with it are being allowed to do things they weren’t before. Take the wedding receptions case. Under current guidelines, most states, including New York, have restrictions for large gatherings of people owing to the pandemic. The creation of this pass allows those who wish to do so to bypass these restrictions.

As best I can determine, the only people currently not recommended to get the vaccine are those “with a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any component of the COVID-19 vaccine” and children under 16. But the creation of this passport doesn’t change what they’re allowed to do; it merely frees those with it to do things they can’t do now.

As to those who simply refuse to get the vaccine? They have the right to make that choice. But they don’t have a right to get others sick or impose other negative externalities on others. Since vaccinated people are still required to wear a mask, socially distance, and take all manner of other precautions against the virus around people who aren’t vaccinated, that’s a hell of a negative externality. To the extent that makes vaccine-hesitant folks “second-class citizens,” that’s just too damn bad. Choices come with consequences.

The real ethical quandary is that it will be months before we can vaccinate everyone, which means those who are closer to the front of the line are privileged over those in the back. And, of course, a lot of people can’t easily get—or can’t afford—regular COVID tests.

As to when this all ends? Presumably, it’s when we reach herd immunity as a society and can sound the all clear. And incentivizing vaccination against the virus by allowing those who do so to live a more normal life will speed that up for everybody.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, COVID-19, Health, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Agreed James, with this small exception:

    As to when this all ends? Presumably, it’s when we reach herd immunity as a society and can sound the all clear.

    In our current political environment, I don’t see us reaching herd immunity any time soon and maybe not till long after I am dead. It’s not just the growing antivax movement with the idiot conspiracy theories running rampant, or the refusals of so many on the right to mask up or social distance, it’s also the fact that there are parts of the world where vaccinations will be very rare among the general populace and breeding grounds for mutations.

    TBH, for me at my age and state of decrepitude, I don’t think it ends until I die.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I fear you’re right. But, as I argue in greater detail in the linked post, a passport system may well force people’s hand. If you want to be able to do certain activities, you’ll have to get your shot.

    We’ll have to crack down hard on those assaulting the poor sap at the door charged with checking the passport. I think that’s really the point of friction.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    Given that the Trumpers are already going from place to place having public temper tantrums at private businesses over wearing a mask, we can expect more and more of these perpetual-adolescent drama queens to create scenes on a daily basis.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    And so it begins, another front in the culture war.

    Despite the issues arising from the transition time that it will take to offer the entire, eligible population the vaccine, this provides an added margin of safety for front line workers. I’d like to see some major businesses, in hospitality and transportation announce that the are signing on. That would put pressure on the vax resisters.

    @MarkedMan:

    And likely have those temper tantrums while carrying guns.

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    This seems to make too much sense to not do it. Yes, it creates a two-tier society. But unlike all the other ways we have to create a less privileged class, an individual can easily choose to join the privileged class. (Yes, a small number of people legitimately can’t get vaccinated, but I expect the number is small. And they really are potential carriers. One would hope arrangements would be made for ready access to testing to allow them to get passports anyway. And grocery delivery and curbside pickup, including pharmacy items, were things well before COVID,)

    My fear is that this will create a social cleavage. Republicans have a history of exacerbating and exploiting any cleavage. Until last year it would never have occurred to me that a president or governor would be so cynical as to choose not only do as little as possible about a deadly epidemic, but then run on doing as little as possible. I don’t see a state passport in my near future, FL Gov DeUseless has been an eye opener. I fear Jazz Shaw may represent the tip of a wedge. If you thought they were unreasonable about masks, it may turn out you ain’t seen nothing yet. How dare you elitist socialists try to keep me out of my sports bar over something no worse than the flu. It’s just a way to control us. We don’t need no steenking passports.

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  6. CSK says:

    There are people who can’t afford a smartphone. Will a printed paper card be acceptable?

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  7. wr says:

    @gVOR08: “I fear Jazz Shaw may represent the tip of a wedge.”

    Jazz Shaw is the personification of the current right-wing ethos, the only thing they’ve got — “I get to do whatever I want whenever I want no matter what the consequences to other people.” Or, to put it in its shortest form: “You’re not the boss of me!!!”

    I don’t want to wear a mask and I don’t care if I infect you and you die. I want to carry my assault weapon everywhere, and I don’t care if you get shot and you die. I want to burn as much fossil fuel as possible — even when easily available renewals are cheaper — and I don’t care if the entire planet dies. Waaah!

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “The creation of this pass allows those who wish to do so got places in the front of the line (for whatever reason) to bypass these restrictions.” FTFY. As a person who gets my second dose of Pfizer next Saturday morning, I really have no dog in this fight anymore, but let’s be clear, and honest, about what the pass is at this particular point in the sequence.

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  9. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I just returned from Panama City, Florida on business. I thought they didn’t give a shit about Covid in South Carolina. Covid doesn’t exist is Panama city. No masks or social distancing anywhere…to include employees of the hotel, restaurants, businesses, etc.

    There will be no Herd Immunity.

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  10. gVOR08 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: At the moment, I’d agree. But vaccination rates are increasing and I expect Biden will hit his goal of 200 million shots in 100 days. Pretty soon everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be, ending the concern about line jumpers.

    But in the near future Republican vaccine reluctance will start driving the vaccination rate down. Something like 45% of GOPs say they won’t take the vaccine, and some significant number of GOP leaning “independents”. I hope a lot of that is performative and when push comes to shove they’ll get vaccinated. But I think we’ll hit a wall of refuseniks before we reach herd immunity.

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  11. Gustopher says:

    It is currently voluntary and personal data safeguarded using blockchain technology

    Sigh. Blockchain.

    Blockchain is good for a decentralized data store, where no one “owns” the database, which is why it gets used for crypto-currencies. It means “the man” can’t control bitcoins. It’s not particularly secure for preventing data leakage.

    Here, it’s dependent on state vaccine records, so there’s a clear owner of the database.

    Using blockchain here is just because someone is in love with blockchain, and wanted to use it.

    Ok, carry on.

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  12. Loviatar says:

    Jazz Shaw is the personification of the current right-wing ethos, the only thing they’ve got — “I get to do whatever I want whenever I want no matter what the consequences to other people.” Or, to put it in its shortest form: “You’re not the boss of me!!!”

    Once again, words of wisdom from wr.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    In addition to creating a set of haves and have-nots (which I am ok with, in this instance), this also creates a situation where it at least appears that the government is tracking where all the haves are going on a day to day basis.

    Without looking over the source code of the app, and the servers that it talks to, I have no way of knowing whether anyone is saving the information that I went to the supermarket, bar, gun club, strip club, pot shop, massage parlor, or church. They say they use blockchain, but do they?

    Typically this is the kind of information that only my credit card company knows (except for the pot shop which doesn’t take cards, and the church which is free), and which my cell phone provider can probably narrow down pretty well.

    I can see people rejecting it for that reason — founded or unfounded — because they don’t want the government tracking their every move. And, I think it will be lovely to not see those people, and to go to businesses that don’t let them in. I want fewer assholes while I am day drinking at the bar.

    I do, however, worry that this will feed the “the Democrats are using the virus to control us” assholes’ vaccine resistance. We are already seeing that in red areas. I think it would push more people to get it than it would dissuade.

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  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    Vaccine passports

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/03/28/vaccine-passports-for-work/

    17 efforts in the US alone. The arguments are similar to those above and on @James’ post last last week.

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  15. Mimai says:

    But here’s the thing: it’s not that those without the passport are being denied access to activities but that those with it are being allowed to do things they weren’t before.

    When applied to other contentious social issues, this logic might not be so palatable.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Oh, absolutely, and noted in the OP and expanded on more in the previous post. Aside from the incentivization angle, one could argue that the people at the head of the line are the ones who were most inconvenienced by the shutdowns, whether because their risk of dying was higher or because they’re frontline workers who had to take the risk for the rest of us. But there will be well-off folks who jump the queue.

    And, yes, I get my second dose Wednesday so I’d benefit from this. But getting things to normal as fast as possible seems like a good idea all around.

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: A few years back every conference I attended had all these blockchain true believers. In every example they gave I asked them why a secure database would not be a better alternative. I mean, why would a company want to allow transactions to, say their inventory data, offline? What could the purpose possibly be. Their answers, or lack of answers convinced me they actually had no idea what blockchain was for, other than cryptocurrency.

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher:

    Typically this is the kind of information that only my credit card company knows (except for the pot shop which doesn’t take cards, and the church which is free), and which my cell phone provider can probably narrow down pretty well.

    I think you are way out of date on this. All kinds of companies know your location. When you give any application on your phone permission to know your location, they are sending that information continuously back. Does IKEA want to know that you visited their store but didn’t buy anything, or that you drive past their store every day? Sure they do, and they will pay for it. On an iPhone it at least gives you the choice to allow just while you are using the app or all the time, but I suspect many, many people just click through without thinking. And who the hell knows what’s going on with Android.

    All those “free” apps you can download? They are making money somehow, and it probably isn’t only from those cheesy little adds. Remember a few years back when out of nowhere there were a bunch of apps that let you take a picture of yourself and it would return, say, what subject in a famous painting you looked like? I would bet dollars to donuts it was someone building up a photo database for all sorts of commercial reasons.

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  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: Your point is well taken. My comment is more of a reaction to the “I got mine’ fwk you” subtext that I keep hearing in Dr. Joyner’s musings on Covid-19. Maybe probably it’s just my imagination, but still…

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: In the short run, getting vaccinated will, at best, lead to fewer restrictions at work at some point. I got moved up in line because DOD considered me essential but I have no idea how kind it’ll be until my wife gets even her first shot.

    It just seems to me that we need to get the economy back in full gear so that people can get back to living their lives. And making that easier will encourage reluctant people to get vaccinated.

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  21. DrDaveT says:

    Countdown to when some fruitcake evangelical group invokes “the mark of the Beast” in their response to this in 3… 2… 1…

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  22. Mimai says:

    @DrDaveT:

    fruitcake evangelical group

    ISWYDT

    And I laughed.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan: Did I go to the church, or was I at the park across the street? Depending on the positions of cell phone towers and the whether I have location data turned on, they may not know. In a dense neighborhood, which store am I in? Until I purchase something with a card, or step into a camera connected to facial recognition, or my phone has a conversation with the cash register for other reasons… again, unlikely they know my precise whereabouts with great confidence.

    Small shops are less likely, although it wouldn’t surprise me we learned that every store using Square or Stripe was polling for nearby cell phones that are testing the wifi.

    But, whether I know about privacy being a lost cause or not isn’t the issue. It’s whether other people are seeing this as a government surveillance operation.

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  24. Gregory Koster says:

    Mr. Joyner how is it that Jazz Shaw was able to find a much longer list of ‘Think very hard before you get vaccinated’ people:

    https://www.cdc.Gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/underlying-conditions.html

    Is it because CDC guidance is worthless?

    Or is it because it punches a big hole in your argument?

    Remember, if you lived in the world you prescribe for everyone else, when next you tried to post, you’d get this message:

    “Jimmy boy! Until you add this list of people who can’t be vaccinated

    YOU CAN’T POST!

    Haha! It’s not that we’re forbidding you to post. You’re just remaining with those cattle who are too ignorant to have an opinion. We can’t have you posting with all those ‘NEGATIVE EXTERNALITIES.’ If you choose not to comply, well remember:

    “To the extent that makes vaccine-hesitant folks “second-class citizens,” that’s just too DAMN BAD. Choices come with consequences.

    Thanks for this example of smugness, ‘incomplete’ argument, and ‘I’m all right Jack.’ This new style will help public health get the respect we dam well deserve from the cattle.

    The betting odds are 7-1 that you will not add the CDC recommendations to your post.

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