2022 | Coronavirus

Some residents speak against vaccine passport; businesses concerned about logistics

Final vote on proposal could come Jan. 25

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

More than a dozen residents voiced strong opposition to a proposed Montgomery County vaccine passport for certain businesses Tuesday, while organizations representing businesses were concerned about logistics and the ability to enforce the measure.

County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration first proposed the measure last month. It applies to restaurants, movie theaters, entertainment venues and similar establishments. Customers and visitors would have to show proof that they were vaccinated.

During a public hearing on Tuesday, residents told County Council members that the proposal is a mistake for multiple reasons:

  • Some said the passport would not actually limit the spread of the coronavirus, as vaccinated people can still be infected, especially with the omicron variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that vaccinated people can spread the virus, but that vaccines help prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. Some studies have suggested omicron is more transmissible than other variants, including delta. The CDC says this conclusion is still unclear.
  • Business owners said they worried that the passport would encourage residents to patronize businesses outside the county. Washington, D.C., recently put its passport into effect, but Northern Virginia localities and nearby Maryland counties have not enacted one.
  • Business owners said that without assistance, it would be difficult to enforce the vaccine passport, especially because of the need for additional staffing. They said residents could buy a fake vaccine card and it would be difficult to check for those, or to confirm that a person has a valid medical or religious exemption.
  • Some residents said the proposal could lead to segregation, not only against the unvaccinated, but also for younger kids, who might not have identification to show along with their vaccine card.

Representatives of local chambers of commerce and similar organizations told council members that they had similar concerns.

Melvin Thompson, the senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the Maryland Restaurant Association, urged council members to consider an amendment to cover the costs of staffing required to enforce the regulation.

He also urged the council to consider pushing back the implementation dates for restaurants, a stance also taken by other industry leaders during Tuesday’s meeting.

Thompson added that Montgomery County should follow Washington, D.C.’s lead in not requiring vaccination for 5- to 11-year-olds to be included, and that booster shots should not be required. 

Boosters are not required in Montgomery County’s regulation, but, in recent weeks, some council members and members of Elrich’s administration have floated the idea of adding it.

Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard has noted that boosters provide more protection than an initial series of vaccines.

He has used an analogy of using an umbrella offering greater protection from the rain, but no guarantee that the person won’t get wet — similar to vaccines and boosters helping protect against COVID-19.

He said on Tuesday that the reason 5- to 11-year-olds were included was to encourage more vaccinations among that age group, which has a lower rate than other segments of Montgomery County’s population.

Still, some business leaders and officials remained concerned about logistics.

Mauricio Vasquez, the director of programs for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County, said its member businesses support vaccines, but are concerned about the social and economic implications of the proposal.

The chamber supports measures like social distancing and mask mandates, Vasquez said, but worries about the business it could lose over a vaccine proposal, and people using a fake vaccine card or young children who might not have identification along with a vaccine card, leading to social inequities. 

Amy Rohrer, president and CEO of the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, said hotels and motels have struggled throughout the pandemic, and the proposal would create another hurdle.

One complication with hotels and conference centers is that event logistics can vary depending on who is hosting certain events, Rohrer said. Some events require registration, while other more public events do not, she added — and the proposal would create confusion about how it would apply in each case.

In an interview Monday, County Council President Gabe Albornoz said he was still in the “fact finding” stage when asked about his stance on the passport proposal. 

However, he said he doesn’t believe large portions of the population would take their business to other counties without a passport proposal.

“If anything, I think there are a larger group of people who might then go out, if they know everyone in an establishment is vaccinated,” Albornoz said.

Another public hearing for the proposal is scheduled for Jan. 25. A final vote could occur then.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com