Some companies are using persuasion, insisting that employees who don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine wear a mask at all times once they return to the workplace. A growing number of colleges are taking a firmer stance, saying they will require shots for all students. Many sports and entertainment venues, however, are taking a wait-and-see approach about requiring patrons to prove they’re vaccinated.
As the number of people vaccinated rapidly climbs and we plan for a return to “normal,” a thorny issue is emerging: whether employers and managers of other public places can or should require COVID shots for entry and, if so, how best to verify someone has been vaccinated.
Countries such as Israel already offer a “vaccine passport” for residents — a smartphone app or piece of paper — to prove they’re vaccinated when they access gyms, restaurants, and other public accommodations. But the federal and Massachusetts governments have shown little appetite for tackling the passport issue, leaving it to private businesses to figure out how to create safe spaces without unfairly excluding anyone from post-pandemic life.
“Our members are very much in the camp of trying to encourage vaccination rather than hang the sword of Damocles over folks.” said Christopher Geehern, executive vice president of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest business group.
Geehern said many companies are offering employees information and incentives, such as gift certificates or paid time off to get vaccinated. But many have yet to sort out the difficult balance between mandating and persuading.
“Some of our members . . . have heard from employees who say, ‘I am not going to go back to work if I will be sitting next to someone who is not going to be vaccinated,’” Geehern said.
Many retailers struggled financially the past year and are unlikely to mandate vaccinations for customers or employees, much less require proof of inoculation, out of fear of losing business, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
“You don’t want to alienate the consumer,” he said.
States have long had the legal right to mandate vaccinations, such as for enrolling children in school. But the ability to carry around digital proof of vaccination status is new. And now the push to return to a more normal life has triggered a lot of discussion about vaccine passports, in which users can upload proof of vaccination on a smartphone app for potential entry into work, school, or other venues. That phenomenon has sparked a debate about equity, security, and privacy.
“Not everybody has smartphone access, so how do you build a system without smartphone access to still prove someone has been vaccinated or it’s not appropriate for them to be vaccinated,” said Carmel Shachar, executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.
Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health, said it’s premature to consider requiring proof of vaccination. Fewer than a third of Massachusetts residents are fully vaccinated, according to state figures, and people of color are disproportionally more likely to be unvaccinated.
Sugerman-Brozan said she’s also nervous that widespread use of vaccine passports for entry could let businesses escape their responsibilities to create safe spaces.
“I am concerned that employers will use these passports to get out of taking other health and safety protections that are necessary,” she said.
Equity was one of 10 concerns raised by state Senator Barry Finegold and Representative Linda Dean Campbell in a letter this month to President Biden and Governor Charlie Baker, urging them to work together to develop a “robust framework” for implementing a vaccine verification system. The letter noted that other countries are pushing ahead with plans and systems, as are a few states, such as New York with its voluntary Excelsior Pass. Excelsior, the first state vaccine passport, works like a mobile airline boarding pass, and can be used to gain entry to some sports and entertainment venues. Hawaii is also working on a system that would allow travelers to avoid quarantine by showing digital proof of vaccination.
The lawmakers said lack of a clear direction from the federal government would lead to widespread confusion as many different systems emerge. They raised concerns about potential fraud with counterfeit passes, potential security breaches of vaccination passport databases, and the need to design systems that are affordable for venues to use.
“We need to start addressing these questions now,” the lawmakers wrote.
A White House spokeswoman last month said there will be no centralized vaccination database, and no federal mandate requiring a single vaccination credential, but promised forthcoming guidelines for states.
In Massachusetts, the COVID-19 Response Command Center declined comment, but referred to statements Baker made last week, saying he preferred to focus first on getting people vaccinated before exploring a passport system.
In that void, employers small and large are developing different approaches.
Tango Therapeutics, a Cambridge biotech company with 80 employees, is asking workers to provide its human resources office with a copy of the paper vaccination card people receive when they get their COVID shot. The company has been providing COVID-19 testing three times a week to workers to quickly catch infections, but is planning to stop soon.
Barbara Weber, Tango’s president and chief executive, said most workers aggressively sought shots or are registered to receive one, but a few have hesitated.
“For the last few, understanding that we were going to stop our testing program very soon and they would be responsible for getting themselves tested twice a week, and that we would require them to wear masks indefinitely, led them to decide in favor of a vaccination,” she said.
State Street Corp., a Boston-based global financial services company with 9,000 Massachusetts employees, is targeting September for workers to return.
Company spokesman Ed Patterson said no “definitive decision” has been made about whether to require them to be vaccinated or how to monitor compliance if shots are required. But he acknowledged the issue is important.
“Given the legal and privacy considerations, we are continuing to explore all options,” he said. “We are, however, encouraging all employees to get vaccinated and are providing paid time off from work to do so.”
By contrast, a growing number of colleges, including Northeastern and Brown Universities, recently announced students must be immunized before they return in the fall.
Northeastern spokeswoman Renata Nyul said the state already requires college students to submit vaccination documentation against measles, mumps, and several other infectious diseases, so schools have systems in place to obtain proof of these shots, typically through a health form signed by a student’s doctor.
For verifying COVID shots, Northeastern is building technology that would allow students to submit a copy of their COVID vaccine card, which includes the date of vaccination and type of vaccine.
Yet, Northeastern has not yet required its employees to get a COVID shot.
“We are looking at various scenarios, but as you can imagine, employment law is quite complex, particularly as it pertains to unusual circumstances such as this pandemic,” Nyul said.
Leading Massachusetts sports and entertainment venues, including TD Garden and Gillette Stadium, have not made any decisions about requiring proof of vaccination for workers or patrons.
“We will adhere to any guidance from city and state officials, but we have no plans for it at this time,” said Tricia McCorkle, TD Garden spokeswoman.
A spokeswoman for Fenway Park did not return a phone message.
Many smaller venues have remain closed, finding it not financially feasible to reopen under the state’s 50 percent capacity rules, said Emily Ruddock, executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide arts and cultural advocacy organization. Many now worry that once they reopen, a passport system might be too costly for small venues to implement, and may bar people who are unable to obtain one or are hesitant about the safety of vaccines.
“To reopen safely, so their artists are safe and audiences are safe, is paramount, but there is really a concern that a passport program that requires outlay of money will delay their opening even more,” Ruddock said.
The cost of the digital passport software is based on the number of users scanned per day and billed at that rate for an entire year, she said. That makes sense for supermarkets or gyms with a steady stream of customers, but is too expensive for performance venues with a short season.
“One organization we work with closely, it’s international, and they researched the leading passport software on the market,” she said. “And it was too cost-prohibitive for them to do that.”
But one thing is clear: consumer demand to do business with people who have been vaccinated isn’t going away.
Joe Rogers, the owner of Boston wedding planning company Contagious Events, said couples are already asking if he can help find vaccinated vendors, such as caterers or DJs, for their upcoming wedding.
”We tell them that we can’t require it,” Rogers said. “But they can let the vendors know that they would like to work with vendors who are vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated.”
Jonathan Saltzman and Anissa Gardizy of the Globe staff contributed to this story.