An XP pro’s guide to vaccine passports

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Unfortunate as it is, the pandemic timeline seems to have shifted once again as we move from the hallelujah moment of a few weeks back, when vaccination rates were rising and mask mandates were lifting, to more of an it’s baaack moment now, as cases of scary new COVID-19 variants rise across the country and the world.

Those in the private sector have, for the most part, been left without clear guidance for creating policies around the safe return of workers and consumers in this murky new normal. Those of us dedicated to bringing people together for meaningful experiences — whether it be at a concert venue or in the mountains of Sun Valley or in an immersive retail store — are feeling, let’s face it, particularly in the dark.

No locality or venue wants to be called out as the site of a superpreader event — remember Bitcoin 2021 in Miami? And, some experts are worried the Olympics are on track to be just that.

Enter, vaccine passports. Our savior? Maybe? Partially? The consensus seems to be that two-dose vaccines are effective against the Delta variant, but whether that holds true for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson regimen is unknown. If you are planning IRL XP, vax passports seem like a smart and obvious route to take. Here’s what we know…

What Are Vaccine Passports?

So-called “vaccine passports” are digital health apps that can verify select health records, like a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status or COVID-19 test results. Some of these apps sync directly with healthcare partners to display a user’s records, while others require you to upload the information yourself, typically via QR code.

Essentially, it is a verified, mobile-friendly version of a paper immunization card (which, as many have noted, decidedly does not fit in a standard-sized wallet).

Key Players

There are a few big vendors you’ve likely heard of in this space, including Commonpass and CLEAR. New York State also worked with IBM to create its own Excelsior Pass (which has been downloaded over 1 million times) and The International Air Transport Association has created an app specifically for airlines to tap into.

While the U.S. has not created or adopted an app as the nationwide standard, other governments around the world have chosen to do so, like Israel and the majority of countries in the European Union. (This, of course, becomes complicated when itineraries include more than one country and therefore require consumers to download distinct apps for each.)

Use Cases

To date, conversation about vax passport apps has predominantly revolved around the travel sector. However, live event producers and event venues are actively employing digital verification systems, and the expectation is that their usage will continue to rise in the experiential world.

  • In the spring, the Buffalo Bills became the first team in the NFL to announce that they’d be playing the upcoming season with full capacity stadiums, but that all attendees would be required to download and utilize New York’s Excelsior Pass to prove their vaccine status. This decision was made by the Bills together with politicians in Erie County, where the stadium is located.
  • More recently, vaccine verification was required for many PRIDE events throughout the month of June. Buzzfeed Editor David Mack captured one private event organizer’s policy on Twitter, in which they justified the requirement by citing how easy it is to fake the paper immunization card:
  • The Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark was one of the earliest sites in the country to require digital vaccine verification using MyHealth, an app that is directly linked to the national ID system. Zoo spokesman Jacob Munkholm Hoeck told the BBC, “We had to establish these new checkpoints…We’ve put a lot of resources into this. That’s the downside. But it is running smoothly.”

Legal and Social Considerations

As with seemingly everything related to the ongoing pandemic, vaccine passports have become a politicized minefield. While proof of vaccinations is a regular requirement throughout life (to go to school in the U.S., for example, or to travel to certain regions of the world), the COVID-19 vax is a particularly sensitive issue for many people for varying reasons, and some say requiring proof of having gotten the jab could be alienating. Among the arguments on the flip side, of course, is that a large percentage of potential audiences — including those at high risk — may seek out such measures before they feel safe enough to attend IRL experiences, especially when just as many virtual options are expected to stick around.

Some groups, such as the global digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, have also raised concerns about the equity of verification systems, not to mention the privacy issues involved. The organization wrote that requiring such apps to access public spaces “would exacerbate existing inequities and reinforce a two-tiered system of the privileged, who can move about freely in society, and the vulnerable, who can’t work, shop, or attend school because they don’t have a cell phone or access to testing.”

And of course, here in the U.S., some states have outright banned businesses and government agencies from using digital health apps.

Given these considerations, many event organizers — especially those in states that have reached 70 percent or higher vaccination rates — are choosing to forego the requirement of vaccine passports altogether, with some implementing “vaccinated” and “unvaccinated” seating sections. Of course, making that option workable requires that attendees be honest when choosing their ticket type and have faith that others will do the same. As Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic, “America has always been on the vaccine honor system,” and it’s very difficult to truly prove someone’s vaccination status given our current tools.

Last Words

For an event organizer who does plan to utilize digital vaccine verification, the best course of action is to assume the technology is new for your audience. Provide attendees with detailed instructions on how to download and use the app for both iOS and Android and communicate those instructions more than once. Have trained staff available ahead of the event and on-site to answer customer questions to ensure a seamless check-in experience.

Beyond that, it is imperative now and into the foreseeable future to continue making all of your safety plans crystal clear in advance, and of course, to comply with all regional regulations around capacity, mask-wearing, and whether “vax passports” are even permitted. After more than a year apart, people are ready to get back together en masse IRL, but they expect a safe experience and it is the job of experienced creators to provide that.

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