Let’s start with the good news. As more people get vaccinated, daily COVID-19 infection rates are starting to trend downward. In fact, COVID-19 case numbers are the lowest they’ve been in a year. Now that the vaccine is available for everyone aged 12 years or older, people are understandably feeling safer to attend events. That includes more vulnerable populations, such as those with compromised immune systems or other high risk factors. Moreover, the accessibility of the vaccine decreases the impact of health equity on risk. As we’ve seen over the last year or so, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected some groups based on social determinants of health, bringing health equity to the forefront of awareness. The vaccine is certainly not a cure for the inequalities that were highlighted by the pandemic, but it is accessible to everyone. Therefore, fewer people across demographics are getting sick.
Obviously, all of that is good news for the event industry. The positive impact is undeniable: Although the length of time the vaccine takes to reach peak effectiveness is unknown, the decrease in cases despite society reopening is a good sign. In many places, fully vaccinated people are able to socialize with other fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask. With this increased immunity, public transportation and air travel also carries less risk. That means planners can expect to start opening their doors to non-locals and holding larger-scale events.
There’s a ‘But’
However, the relationship between the vaccine and reopening events is a complicated one. While there is much evidence supporting the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine, some people are reluctant to get it. Attorney Joshua Grimes of Grimes Law Offices, LLC points out that while mandating vaccination is not directly in violation of HIPAA laws, the issue is a delicate one. The Americans with Disabilities Act rightly protects those who are at risk of serious health complications from the vaccine. Let’s face it- this is not a black and white issue. For some people, the risks of being vaccinated outweigh the benefits. According to Grimes, exceptions should be made for those individuals when mandating vaccination to enter an event. But for the most part, the choice comes down to planners.
So how should you handle vaccination? While some organizers are requiring proof of vaccination for entry, others are adjusting which safety regulations apply to guests based on their vaccination status. For example, many events allow vaccinated individuals to attend without a mask, while requiring unvaccinated attendees to continue donning one. But how legal is mandating vaccination to participate in events?
Breaking Down the Legal Parameters
Let’s take a minute to translate the legalese into layman's terms. Some people have expressed concerns that requiring proof of vaccination is a violation of their HIPAA rights. However, this is not directly the case. According to Joshua Grimes, HIPAA laws do protect sensitive health information, but whether a person has been vaccinated is not specifically covered under that category. However, there are data-privacy regulation laws that are relevant. That’s because health information is considered personal data. Therefore, if you are going to require proof of vaccination, it should be formally disclosed to attendees. The formal disclosure should explain that you are collecting health information and state how you are going to use it. Attendees would then have a choice whether to sign the agreement, and those who didn’t sign could be refused entry.
That’s the legal crux of it, but this issue is more complicated than that. Collecting and verifying proof isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. You may be wondering, “Don’t vaccination centers provide recipients with proof?” They do, but as scammers capitalizing on mandates have proved, these receipts are not difficult to duplicate. Vaccines are currently being provided by several different companies, so many receipts look different, and there’s no sure-fire way to track authenticity. And even if you suspect something is off-kilter, how can you prove it enough to deny entrance? The Vaccine Credential Initiative is currently working on a digital COVID-19 vaccination passport that will allow businesses to police proof of vaccination.
Mixed Emotions And Ethical Concerns
However, people have mixed feelings about this idea, which is only natural in a situation as complicated as this one. What mixed feelings are people having about being required to have a vaccine to participate in events or daily life activities such as travel? And where are those emotions coming from? Let’s break it down.
For one thing, scientists say that deploying immunizations on an emergency basis can compromise clinical trials that show conclusive data about the vaccine. This data includes information not only about the effectiveness of the vaccine, but its potential long-term effects. While there have been overwhelmingly positive outcomes, some people have expressed concerns that it hasn’t been studied long enough to predict long-term side effects. Of course, these effects could vary among individuals, especially those who are more predisposed to specific effects. The problem for some people is: How do we know what they are when clinical trials are still so incomplete? It becomes a matter of whether the public health risk of COVID-19 outweighs any potential side effects. And that, many argue, is a personal decision.
It’s important to remember that the fear incited by COVID-19 and its vaccine is natural. We don’t mean to minimize the evidence supporting the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine; it’s most certainly there. But the pandemic has been traumatic for all, and having bodily autonomy gives people a sense of control over what happens to them. Some have decided that contracting COVID-19 is a far scarier risk than taking a vaccine that is generally well-tolerated and effective. Others, such as those who became concerned when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was put on pause, are hesitant to be vaccinated. They have either decided against it or are waiting to make a decision as more clinical trials unfold. Is the decision to get vaccinated fundamentally or a personal or public health issue? There’s no easy answer to that highly subjective question. Thus, it falls upon you to make the best possible decision for your business and attendees based on science-backed information.
The heart of the issue may really be more ethical than legal, especially if you live in an area where there are more negative attitudes around mandating the vaccine. Just take Texas, Florida, and Montana for example. Their governors have signed executive orders prohibiting some private establishments from requiring proof for entry. In California, state regulations allow venues to host more people at once if they require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
Proof of Negative COVID-19 Test as an Alternative
Requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test may seem like a less ethically and legally complicated method. So why aren’t more businesses just going that route? In January, the CDC signed an order requiring all passengers arriving into the U.S. from another country to be tested within three days of their departure. The order is applicable to U.S. as well as foreign citizens traveling from outside the U.S. But it hasn’t eliminated the risk of transmission. The reason for this is mostly an issue of time-sensitivity, which also replies to events.
While rapid tests produce results within one day, they aren’t as accurate as standard tests, which take at least 24 to 48 hours to come back. If you require standard tests for entry, you’d have to give attendees a reasonable window of time to get tested and receive results. If they got tested the day before your event, the results probably wouldn’t be available in time for them to attend. But if you give them three or more days to be tested, they still run the risk of contracting the virus after being tested- and prior to attending your event. Furthermore, if your event is longer than one day, people could contract the virus at hotels or elsewhere before returning on the second day.
In order to require negative COVID-19 tests for entry, the venue, vendors, and anyone else on deck would have to be on board. That means all staff members would also have to provide proof of negative tests before the day of your event. We’re not saying this is impossible and that it wouldn’t reduce the risk. But many planners will still feel that mandating proof of vaccination is a better option.
If you want to go about mandating the vaccine for entry, how can it be done? Let’s look at the possibilities. Some smartphone apps can use vaccine records to create passes that can be scanned for entry. New York is currently working on a digital pass that would check vaccination status at the door. This development is called the Excelsior Pass, and it is still being tested.
Keep in mind that fewer people are getting sick as the vaccine continues to roll out. Since it appears that the vaccine has significantly minimized the risk of contracting the disease, less people are harboring it asymptomatically. Still, not everyone has been vaccinated, and some people don’t plan to get it at all. For those who have had it, the amount of time it takes to reach maximum effectiveness is still unknown. But that doesn’t undermine the fact that the vaccine rollout has significantly reduced COVID-19 cases- a very positive result for in-person events!
Whether you decide to mandate the vaccine for entry or not, it’s vital to take ADA accommodations into account. For example, there may be perfectly legal accommodations for people who can’t get the vaccine for medical or cultural/religious reasons. In this case, you may want to simply require proof of a negative COVID-19 test as an alternative.
We strongly believe that only you can know what’s best for your attendees and your business. We are committed to giving you the facts, not trying to influence your decision! The choice of whether to require vaccination for entry is a complicated one; it is influenced by many unique factors that vary from business to business, region to region, ect. Because it’s a decision that deeply impacts your attendees, solidify your strategy and open a dialogue with your attendees. Talk to them about why you’ve made the decision that you made, and be open to answer any questions or discuss concerns in more depth.
Reopening is a step-by-step process. Use polling, surveys, and open dialogue on social media to be aware of their feelings and keep your audience informed about your actions along the way. When possible, allow them to weigh in on decisions and take their input into account. Remember that this is a time of high anxiety for many people who are returning to in-person events after staying home for more than a year. Read our previous article on calming your attendees’ anxiety about in-person events for tips!