Are vaccine passports for audience members the quickest way back for the performing arts in Chicago?
The idea of performing only for audience members carrying proof of their vaccinated status has, I’m told, been under quiet discussion among the city’s venues and artistic leaders.
The advantages are obvious but so are the pitfalls. Let’s review.
We’ll start with the plusses. Vaccinated persons are, by definition, less likely to get infected by the COVID-19 virus that has plunged the sector into chaos. Numerous studies have shown that the government-approved vaccines in the United States are highly effective for those fully dosed. And while the data remains far from conclusive (at press time, anyway), studies also have shown that vaccinated persons also appear less likely to transmit the virus, especially when reasonable protective measures remain in place.
In other words, then, vaccinated audience members would appear to be less of a danger to others and their attendance at an arts event is also less dangerous to themselves. You likely know persons who have received their shots and expressed a renewed willingness to leave their homes.
Logic suggests this goes two ways. Vaccinated audience members are safer for other audience members, but also for staffers who might be serving a drink, taking a ticket, emerging from a stage door or otherwise sharing the same space. Aside from the moral imperative for safety, and the need to be seen to be doing the right thing, this also tamps down worries over being held legally liable for an on-site infection.
And there’s precedent for such a vaccine-oriented approach. Growing precedent.
Some cruise lines, such as Saga, Crystal Cruises and the American Steamboat Company, already have said that future passengers will need to confirm they have been vaccinated to take a trip and a lot of travel industry observers argue that other modes of travel inevitably will follow, including domestic airline flights.
And, in a much under-discussed rule, the City of Chicago already is offering a form of special treatment to those who have been vaccinated.
As of Feb. 23, the city said that out-of-state visitors no longer needed to quarantine if (a) they were asymptomatic and (b) fully vaccinated. And since the city is in the business of regulating live entertainment, that change would suggest the local authorities implicitly were sanctioning such a segmentation. The city could hardly object to such a requirement at a theater when it is making that very distinction itself.
In a purely practical sense, vaccine passports might make a more immediate and significant difference for arts organizations since their audiences tend to skew older and are, therefore, more likely to have had the chance to get their shots. This was become even more significant in coming weeks.
But there’s a downside, and it’s not just the possibility that emerging (or yet to emerge) COVID-19 variants might undermine the effectiveness of current vaccines, although that’s a pretty good place to start worrying. Over time, if that scenario comes to pass, the issue might not be just have you had the vaccine, but which one and when?
Right now, there is no agreed-upon vaccine passport, although there are various technologies, schemes and entrepreneurial ideas for one. Vaccinated persons currently are given an accounting of their shots by their provider on an official “COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that card contains no photo I.D. nor embossed seal and appears easy to forge; all an unvaccinated person would have to do is substitute a name and head to a photo copier.
Then there are matters of equity and inclusion. Numerous studies, including one by the CDC itself, have shown that persons of color have less access to, and are less likely to have received, a vaccine, potentially working against the efforts of arts group to diversify audiences. The same argument could it made when it comes to younger audience members, also less likely to have had a vaccine opportunity.
And some people, for their own reasons, have chosen not to get the shot, even when offered.
Tribune columnist Eric Zorn has argued that this represents immoral decision-making by a group he terms “refuseniks,” but the converse claim, that what we choose to put into our own body must remain a personal choice even in a pandemic, also has ethical validity. Is it fair to deny someone access to a show because they have chosen not to have a vaccine, possibly for a reason that no one else knows anything about?
Then there’s technology. Any vaccine passport is likely to be on a phone, with all the data-privacy risks. And that would mean that anyone without such an implement could no longer enjoy art. Not so good.
And, finally, there is the practical issue of turning unqualified ushers into vaccine police and lobbies into punitive environments that look more like international borders than welcoming environments.
So. Much to worry about, and understandably so. As a result, the arts, especially the ever-nervous nonprofit sector, are unlikely to be a leader here.
Even though they have among the most to gain.