TEXAS VIEW: Public health becomes an afterthought in ‘vaccine passports’ ban

THE POINT: Texas leaders could have allowed businesses to more safely serve customers, but instead opted to keep them in the dark.

As he dropped the state’s mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions in March, Gov. Greg Abbott emphasized that business owners could still set their own standards to keep employees and customers safe.

“If businesses want to limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols, they have the right to do so,” Abbott told a crowd March 2 at a Lubbock restaurant that, as it happens, decided to keep its mask policy and socially-distanced seating plan in place a bit longer. “It is their business and they get to choose to operate their business the way they want to.”

Or not.

Last week the governor signed a law banning so-called vaccine passports. The measure prohibits Texas businesses from asking customers for proof of vaccination before offering them services. Violators would be cut off from state grants or contracts and could have their state permits or licenses revoked.

The ban is a bumper-sticker solution to a complex problem. It could prevent businesses from developing common-sense safety measures based on a customer’s vaccination status — for instance, allowing people entering a concert hall or sports arena to skip a temperature check if they show proof of vaccination, or allowing hair or nail salons to schedule unvaccinated clients at staggered times or with special safeguards.

Only a third of Texans have been fully vaccinated. But the vaccine passport ban leaves businesses unable to differentiate: They must treat all customers as if they are vaccinated, or pile on the precautions as if no one is, even though their client base is a mix of people posing different levels of risk.

It is foolish to foist this level of uncertainty on businesses, especially at a time when businesses are trying to show potential employees and customers that it is safe to come back. Instead, Abbott simply wishes it to be so: “Texans should have the freedom to go where they want without any limits, restrictions, or requirements,” he declared last week.

This pandemic involves a highly contagious virus that has killed more than 50,000 Texans. Barring businesses from asking customers about vaccination status reinforces a misleading narrative that COVID-19 precautions are a matter of individual choice and not public health. In reality, our choices affect everyone around us, and the actions of a stranger can infect someone we love.

The question over vaccine passports has become a hot-button issue, especially in right-wing media, but it deserves a fair and nuanced discussion. An April poll by the Texas Politics Project shows Texans are evenly split on the issue, with 41% favoring and 42% opposing the idea. But a national Gallup poll shows the support depends on the activity: Clear majorities said proof of vaccination should be required for airline travel (57%) or attending large events, such as concerts or sports events (55%). Fewer people said proof of vaccination should be required for returning to work (45%), staying in a hotel (44%) or dining indoors at a restaurant (40%). Americans recognize the risks vary by situation, and the policies should, too.

People rightly value their health privacy, and all Texans have the freedom to choose whether to take the coronavirus vaccine. Freedom of choice should not mean freedom from consequences, however. People who decline to get vaccinated pose a higher risk to others in crowds or other close settings. Businesses should have the information needed to safely accommodate them — or, in some circumstances, may find they can’t safely serve them at all.

Banning vaccine passports throws those considerations out the window. Freedom of choice becomes freedom from any responsibility for that decision, freedom from any duty to consider the safety of others.

The tension between individual and community interests has been a defining theme of this pandemic. In too many cases in Texas there has been no balance at all, just sweeping mandates that prevent local communities or individual businesses from tailoring the proper response. Abbott and other leaders have made decisions as a matter of politics, not public health. And there is a cost to that mindset: Two studies recently cited by The Atlantic found higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths in “strongly individualistic countries” like the U.S.

Recognizing that growing numbers of vaccinated Texans are helping the state inch toward normalcy, Texas leaders could have allowed businesses to use customers’ vaccine status to more safely serve them. Instead they opted for a ban, keeping businesses in the dark, leaving Texans to shoulder all of the risk.

Austin American-Statesman