United States: Mask or Vaccine Passport?

If vaccination is the best protection against COVID-19, is it necessary to require masking or proof of vaccination? New York City has just given its answer. Others should soon follow its lead.

A dramatic turn of events among our neighbors to the south on July 27: In recommending mask wearing in indoor spaces once again, even for vaccinated Americans, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky created general confusion. Let’s underscore, on one hand, that we’re talking about an about-face.

Some weeks earlier, the CDC had issued very clear recommendations according to which those “fully vaccinated” could, regardless of circumstances, give up their masks for good. The arrival of the delta variant, which spreads at high speed with a capital “S” in many communities, has, however, changed the game.

On the other hand, the basic reasoning for this change gives one pause. As authorities continue to praise the extraordinary efficacy of vaccines that provide nearly 100% protection against complications tied to COVID-19, wearing the mask seems only to serve to protect the unvaccinated.

So, in the American context, the problem of non-vaccination is one of demand, not of supply. For months, the country practically drowned in millions of unused vaccine doses. At this point, by a strong majority, Americans who are not yet vaccinated are so because they don’t want to be.

What federal health authorities are therefore demanding is to reimpose restrictions on those who have been vaccinated in order to protect the holdouts — from themselves.

Politically, this is simply not defensible.

We have seen from the very first days when, one after another, counties — including Democratic Party bastions — chose to ignore, if not to altogether repudiate, the new guidelines. A striking example took place right in the heart of the country when, some hours after the announcement of the CDC guidelines, the city council of St. Louis, where Joe Biden won more than 60% of the votes in 2020, voted to block the imposition of mask wearing. The governor of Pennsylvania, though an advocate of the hard line regarding COVID-19, also announced that he had no intention of reimposing the mask requirement. And we’re talking here about counties controlled by Democrats. In most of those controlled by Republicans, masking was totally set aside several months ago, most notably in Texas, where the state even explicitly forbade cities from imposing it.

An overwhelming majority of American states have thus abandoned for good the obligation to wear a mask and, above all, lockdown decrees — this in spite of a significant increase in the number of reported cases and hospitalizations.

This does not mean, however, that health restrictions are entirely a thing of the past in the land of Uncle Sam. In fact, an entirely new measure is expected to gain momentum and influence: the vaccine passport.

The Most Sensible Requirement

The idea of a vaccine passport is certainly controversial. Recent images of demonstrators marching in several European cities against such a requirement allow one to sense what would happen, at a minimum, in a good many places in the United States if certain states were to adopt this approach. Texas, from the outset, banned the idea of a vaccine passport. And the Biden administration itself, very rapidly after taking office, formally rejected the idea.

But among organizations determined to develop measures against COVID-19, such as businesses, universities or municipalities, it is an idea destined — no pun intended — to spread.

The most striking example came to the most important city in the country: New York City. Hardly 24 hours after having officially declared that it would not require mask-wearing, it became the first major city to announce the imposition of mandatory proof of vaccination beginning Sept. 13, in order to enter such places as restaurants or performance venues.

The measure raises several questions, not only political, but also constitutional. Certain protections, especially those based on religion, permit one to refuse to be injected with a medical product. The city just averted possible legal disputes by offering a different path to those refusing vaccination; they will be able to submit to weekly screening. And, in a decision widely covered by the news media, a federal judge nominated by none other than Donald Trump recognized that a university has the right to require its personnel and its students to be vaccinated.

In the final analysis, proof of vaccination is a logical response to the elementary question posed by many since last week: If the vaccine is the nearly infallible tool to protect from complications tied to COVID-19, and if one really wants to call for a government mandate, then why not require the vaccine rather than the mask?

New York City has just responded. It was the first. But it is highly likely it won’t be the last.

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