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Missouri lawmakers move to ban vaccine passports — but what are they?

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers took the first step to ban so-called vaccine passports for travel this week. 

An amendment attached to a transportation bill from Sen. Lincoln Hough prohibits Missouri organizations from requiring COVID-19 vaccine documentation in order to access transportation systems, such as on airplanes, buses, cabs, or trains. The amendment was adopted along party lines, and the bill was later perfected and sits on the calendar for third reading. 

Members of the Senate Conservative Caucus celebrated the inclusion of the amendment on the bill. 

“[T]here are few more un-American ideas than denying the free movement, assembly, and speech of American citizens based on their status in one class or another (in this case, vaccinated or not vaccinated). The continued politicization of the COVID environment has led to a rise in folks (mainly government) finding new ways to infringe upon your rights,” Sen. Bill Eigel, who offered the amendment, said on social media. “The ‘vaccination passport’ is just the latest in the line of bad ideas!” 

“I really believe that vaccine passports are an infringement on a well-established American right to travel,” Sen. Bob Onder told The Missouri Times. “It’s been a principle of constitutional law for almost five decades. The right to travel is derived from the principle of free association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. And really requiring any kind of a passport, any kind of papers, in order to exercise those rights is antithetical to our system of government. It really creates two classes of citizens: one class that’s been vaccinated and one hasn’t.” 

As the underlying bill pertained to transportation, the vaccine passport ban was tailored to transportation. But Onder said he expects more conversation will be had among lawmakers when it comes to businesses or restaurants that might wish to require proof of vaccinations.  

Here’s a look at what vaccine passports are and how they are utilized in other parts of the world since the pandemic. 

So what are vaccine passports?

A vaccine passport is proof — either electronically or in paper format — that an individual has received a legitimate vaccination.

Supporters argue such certification will help boost business and ensure people feel safer when traveling or shopping. A December 2020 TripIt survey of 3,200 people about future travel plans found 81 percent were interested in a “digital health passport if it meant they could travel freely.” 

In Israel, residents are required to show their Green Pass documenting they have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in order to enter businesses such as gyms, hotels, restaurants, and theaters as the country reopened its economy. The Green Pass, run through the country’s Ministry of Health, can either be downloaded onto a phone or a physical document. 

And New York, partnering with IBM, has launched the Excelsior Pass, an app that will be used to allow entry into larger events, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

International travelers, even pre-pandemic, may already be familiar with the concept of proving vaccinations as multiple countries required such authentication before entering. 

What are Missouri officials saying? 

Gov. Mike Parson said the state would never mandate vaccine passports but would support the private sector, such as a business owner, who would want to implement such a policy. 

“If the private sector wants to do that, I’m fine with that,” Parson said during a press briefing Thursday. “But as far as the state goes, we will never mandate vaccine passports.” 

Becky Ruth, a Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said she would support the legislation passed in the upper chamber.

“The Constitution affords the legal right to travel and move about freely,” Ruth told The Missouri Times.

Lisa Cox, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Senior Services, said there haven’t been any conversations about vaccine passports within the department. 

As of Friday, more than 2.5 million COVID-19 vaccinations (including first and second doses) have been given in Missouri. More than 16 percent of Missourians have completed the vaccination process; 27 percent have initiated vaccination. 

What has the federal government said? 

So far, the Biden administration has largely left the decision of vaccine passports up to the private sector. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier this week “there will be no centralized universal federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.” However, the administration is working with private companies in developing these credentials, according to the Washington Post

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Friday that fully vaccinated people who still take precautions, such as mask-wearing, can travel with low risk and without receiving a COVID-19 test or self-quarantining.