SALT LAKE CITY — Planning a long-awaited trip this summer? Don't expect to take along a government-issued "vaccine passport" to prove you're immunized against COVID-19.
Sure, you can always pull out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card" Americans were given after their shots, although the wallet-sized pieces of paper with often handwritten entries are already being illegally counterfeited.
But Utah, along with nearly half the country, has effectively barred state and local governments from issuing what's known as a "vaccine passport," a digitized, government-issued certification of vaccination, and the Biden administration has indicated there won't be one coming from Washington, D.C., either.
Such certificates are already showing up overseas and expected to be available to all European Union residents as soon as the end of the month. Israel began issuing a "Green Pass" in February to vaccinated residents, advertised as a way of "returning to life" by allowing access to theaters and other places where shots are required.
New York has a voluntary digital "Excelsior Pass" in place that displays a user's vaccination status or coronavirus test results needed to get into baseball games and other sporting events, entertainment venues and some restaurants and bars. The New York Times reported the pass could cost that state's taxpayers $17 million.
A few other states, including Alaska, are looking at options for residents who want digital proof they've gotten the shots. Meanwhile, bans on vaccine passports in Florida and Texas have sparked a battle with cruise ships trying to ensure all passengers are vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Depends where you go
For Utahns, not having a vaccine passport may not be much of an issue, since there appear to be few activities in the state restricted to only those vaccinated against COVID-19, other than getting into The Bayou, a Salt Lake City bar that requires customers to show their CDC vaccination cards at the door.
It could be a different story when Utahns and residents of other states without vaccine passports travel, although it's not clear if not having a government-issued digital record of the COVID-19 shots will become an issue, the head of the region's largest travel agency said.
"Honestly, it's very confusing," said Brian Hollien, president of Salt Lake City-based Morris Murdock Travel, which merged earlier this year with Columbus Travel. "There is great confusion regarding the need for vaccine passports."
Even travel agents are scrambling to keep up with coronavirus-related requirements for travelers as countries like France and hopefully soon, the United Kingdom, reopen to foreign visitors who have proof they've been vaccinated.
For now at least, Hollien said, that means showing a CDC vaccination card for Americans in addition to documentation of a negative pre-departure test for the virus. The U.S. government also requires a negative COVID-19 test to return home from another county, even for Americans who are vaccinated.
"We don't have a political statement to make one way or the other. We would just encourage people to get vaccinated if they'd like to travel because we think this is going to be with us for the balance of this year at least" for a lot of travel outside of the U.S., he said, although Mexico and the Caribbean aren't requiring COVID-19 shots.
There's always the possibility, however, that it will become more difficult in the future for Americans to travel without a government-issued digital record of their coronavirus vaccination, especially if the technology becomes more widely used.
"I just don't see the U.S. going to a vaccine passport. Would I like to, personally? Yes, I would, just for the sake of getting people back traveling and fulfilling their dreams," Hollien said. "I understand that it's an invasion of the privacy I have, but I submit to a number of thing."
That includes governments recording his travels out of the country through the use of a regular passport, he said. A vaccine passport "may be a necessary step" as the pandemic continues to affect countries differently. "I think it just gives me another level of security that those around me are protected."
Privacy is the heart of the matter in U.S.
Maintaining privacy is at the heart of the opposition to vaccine passports.
A bill passed by the Utah Legislature in February prohibits any government entity in the state from issuing vaccine passports, according to its sponsor, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, because it spells out that "the government cannot require anyone to show proof of vaccination for any purpose."
Spendlove said although he "didn't explicitly consider vaccine passports" in putting together the bill, it is intended to reign in government's power in the pandemic and allows private companies to requires the shots or even to issue vaccine passports.
"The government is a monopoly, and you don't have a choice but to do what the governments says," he said, adding that a benefit of a government-issued vaccine passport would be "the simplicity of being able to show that status."
That's not a good enough reason, the lawmaker said.
"In society, there's always this battle between freedom and safety. And there's a lot of things that we could do to make people safer but we're also, in doing that, we're often taking away people's freedom. I don't think that trade-off is valuable enough to make it worth it in my opinion," Spendlove said.
Gov. Spencer Cox is no fan of vaccine passports, either, telling Utah State University's Utah Statesman last month that the state had already done "something even bigger" thanks to the prohibitions in Spendlove's bill. He said some countries may continue to require a variety of vaccinations, but predicted fewer private businesses would.
Certainly, everything that we're experiencing in terms of people wanting to visit Utah, is that they are coming. They are really hungry to experience what Utah has to offer.
–Utah Office of Tourism managing director Vicki Varela
"I'm really not worried about that piece as we go forward," the governor said. "But I know it's certainly been a talking point that gets people fired up."
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College, said vaccine passports shouldn't be such a big deal.
"It's just kind of a formalized way, a more standardized and quite honestly, a more secure way, of proving you've been vaccinated. It's the same thing as those cards, except they're a much more secure and private manner. So it's not something people should be afraid of," Kim said.
But like just about everything else related to the pandemic that began more than a year ago, he said vaccine passports are a politicized "third rail" in the United States, a topic no one wants touch because of the privacy issues involved even though it may put Americans at a disadvantage.
"I think whether we like it or not, international travel is probably going to require some sort of proof of vaccination" against COVID-19, Kim said. "It's going to be an advantage to have and be part of a standardized, international system."
Not as simple as it sounds
Vicki Varela, Utah Office of Tourism managing director, said it's not that simple.
The idea was widely welcomed when it first surfaced five or six months ago, Varela said, until "you start digging into the practicalities of how you create a vaccine passport" as well as "all the layers of complexity," including questions such as whether it would encourage countries to hoard doses.
"My view of how the whole vaccine passport question will play out is that I think everybody agreed it was a really good idea. The European Union as they've started actually trying to execute it, have found it really challenging," she said, adding "so far, it hasn't worked out as this elegant and simple way of ensuring everyone has vaccines."
Tourism in Utah is bouncing back faster than the rest of the country, she said, although it may take a year or more before international travelers, who typically make up 10% of the state's tourists, return in pre-pandemic numbers. Varela said that's likely because many people still feel safer closer to home.
"Certainly, everything that we're experiencing in terms of people wanting to visit Utah, is that they are coming. They are really hungry to experience what Utah has to offer," she said, calling the appeal of the state's outdoor recreation opportunities for those concerned about the pandemic or who haven't been vaccinated "a silver lining."
It's too soon to say whether not having a vaccine passport could have a long-term impact on Utah tourism, Varela said.
"Let's talk about this in one year and I will tell you," she said. "I think it's really hard to say."