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California lawmakers delay vaccine passports — for now

Vaccine passport
Posted at 10:11 AM, Sep 12, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- More cities are beginning to require that customers show a vaccine passport before entering certain businesses, but an effort by some Democratic lawmakers to make California the first state to adopt such a verification upon entry system has been put on hold in the legislature.

Two proponents of the policy, state assembly members Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) and Dr. Akilah Weber (D-La Mesa), said they needed more time to craft the bill and gather input from business and consumer groups. California’s legislative session ends Friday.

“It was such an important policy with so many moving pieces, and we are up against a deadline. We wanted to make sure that if we did it, it was done correctly,” said Asm. Weber.

Lawmakers had been working on draft language for several weeks, similar to verification requirements in San Francisco. As of last month, patrons seeking to go indoors at restaurants, bars, clubs and gyms in the city must first show proof of vaccination.

Asm. Wicks said the goal is simple: increase California’s vaccination rate, which currently stands at 66 percent of those eligible.

“Those numbers need to be significantly higher, and I think about this as someone who has an almost 5-year-old who can’t get vaccinated yet,” Wicks said. “I think it gives customers also a stronger sense of relief.”

Wicks and Weber are now deciding whether to introduce a bill next session when lawmakers reconvene in January. They might pursue a slightly less controversial verification mandate first: requiring all employees to show proof of vaccination or undergo routine testing.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a vaccinate-or-test mandate that applies to businesses with 100 or more employees. Wicks and Weber were eyeing legislation that applies to all California businesses, according to a draft of the bill.

Wicks said any vaccine verification system must allow for digital and paper documents, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cards. She said equity and access issues outweighed the potential for forged paper cards.

“There are folks who are unvaccinated; they are going to game the system and dig their heels in. But I think there are still a lot of people who are unvaccinated for whatever reason and they need a little more of a nudge and they will get vaccinated,” she said.

Conservative lawmakers have taken a strong stand against vaccine passports, calling them a threat to freedom and an impingement of people’s rights. Twenty states with Republican governors have banned vaccine passports through executive action or legislation.

So far, no state has adopted mandatory vaccine checks for customers to enter businesses, but several cities have, including New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Honolulu will begin requiring vaccine checks at businesses next week.

Each of those places has its own digital vaccine verification system. In New York and other cities, there have been reports of people encountering difficulty accessing their digital record.

Alexis Hancock of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said some vaccine providers might spell names wrong or enter birthdates incorrectly, forcing people to contact health departments to sort out their digital records.

“It’s not shocking to me that these systems have these issues at first roll-out,” she said.

Hancock worries about data privacy. With the wide variability in state privacy laws, governments that require vaccine checks should pass companion legislation preventing businesses from saving and selling your vaccine information, Hancock said.

“Check status at the door but not log and store,” she said.

Around the world, several countries like France, Italy and China have implemented vaccine passports. One of the most closely watched programs is in Israel.

In a paper last month, researchers credited Israel’s Green Pass as of several factors that helped the country achieve one of the fastest vaccine roll-outs in the world. The vaccine passport system “may have been particularly influential” at swaying young adults, they wrote.

Israel is now using its Green Pass to incentivize booster shots.

“I don’t want to mandate anything. But I do want people to think collectively in a more community sense,” Asm. Weber said. “We can’t get through this if we don’t all work together.”

Weber said vaccine passports are not a foregone conclusion in California: it’ll all come down to the rate of vaccinations and infections in the coming months.