Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they are interested in pursuing a regional COVID-19 “vaccine passport” program and are planning to discuss the idea with leaders of neighboring jurisdictions this week.
“I support the development of a regional or statewide vaccination passport,” County Executive Marc Elrich said during a weekly media briefing Wednesday, referring to a program that would require patrons of restaurants, gyms and other businesses to show proof of vaccination before entering. “It wouldn’t do us any good just to do it in one county, but if the regional leaders are interested — and some of them might be — doing this together as a collective action would help make all of our residents safer.”
Discussions about the vaccine passport program, potentially modeled on a similar effort rolled out in New York City, are still in their “infancy,” said acting Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard, and it’s still unclear such a program would even get off the ground.
But, he added, “Because of how connected our region is, it obviously makes the most sense for it to be a regional effort if it’s going to happen.”
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Government is set to begin discussions of the idea this week, he said.
In an email to WTOP, COG staff said the group “will convene a group of administrative officials this week representing several jurisdictions in the region for an exploratory conversation regarding regional vaccine credentials. At this time there is no specific proposal being advanced. The informal discussion will focus on efforts of other jurisdictions in the country to develop vaccine credential systems and limitations of any such effort in our region.”
Elrich contended such a program wouldn’t be too disruptive to businesses in Montgomery County, which already has exceptionally high vaccination rates.
“If a vaccine passport’s required in Montgomery County, over 85% of adults would still be able to go to restaurants, movie theaters and everything else, so this would not have much of a hit on business,” Elrich said. “What it would do is prevent people who aren’t vaccinated from going into those settings.”
Such a program could also reassure vaccinated patrons, he said.
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“People are staying away from places if they feel vulnerable,” Elrich said, adding he thought business owners “would be thrilled because they can tell their patrons that everybody in this place has been vaccinated. That would be a big deal, I think.”
New York City became the first big city in the U.S. to mandate proof of vaccination for restaurants, theaters and gyms, when officials there announced the program earlier this month. President Joe Biden said he supported the move and called on other local leaders to roll out similar programs.
In the D.C. region, officials have issued vaccine requirements for local-government employees, but there has not been movement toward a vaccine passport program covering everyday activities.
At a news conference earlier this week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she didn’t think it made sense because of regional travel. “We don’t live in a bubble in this region,” she said.
Stoddard said he expected a “mixed bag” of reactions from businesses locally, but there are multiple potential benefits.
The goal is to protect residents, but a vaccine passport program is also likely to drive up a lagging pace of vaccinations, Stoddard said, pointing to New York City’s program.
“The thing a vaccine passport surely does — and this is evidenced by what’s happening in New York City now — is you see a massive uptick in vaccination rates because people feel the inconvenience of not being able to do the things that they want to do, and finally acquiesce and decide that the vaccine is something that they’ll do.”
He added, “We do think that people having some of the activities that they’d like to do be tied to their vaccination status would drive up the numbers in a way that simple messaging would not.”
Further restrictions: ‘Don’t see it happening’
Overall, Montgomery County has seen a notable rise in coronavirus cases over the past month, driven by the more infectious delta variant of the virus, which led local officials to reinstate a mask mandate in indoor public settings.
Hospitalizations have increased very slightly, but the overall number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county remains exceptionally low, Stoddard said.
At the beginning of July, just 0.2% of hospital beds in the county were occupied by patients with COVID-19. That has ticked up to 2.3% currently, which is still very low.
“We’re trying to balance out giving the numbers and being forthright about it, but also explaining that there is still a very low rate of hospitalization,” Stoddard said, adding it’s nowhere near the levels being seen in Texas and Florida.
Given the low rate of serious illness requiring hospitalization, Stoddard said he doesn’t see any appetite among county leaders for reimposing stronger coronavirus-related restrictions, such as gathering limits or capacity restrictions.
“So long as we can keep the cases reasonably under control and not see a huge uptick in hospitalizations, I don’t think we’re gonna go down that road …I just don’t see it happening,” Stoddard said.
WTOP’s Kristi King contributed to this report.