On May 4, the commissioners of St. Joseph County, Indiana passed a resolution against vaccine passports, saying they would “unduly and unnecessarily restrict the freedom of Americans; harm patient privacy; and have a negative financial impact of individuals of color and other marginalized communities.”
It is a bold move for a community, and taking ownership of an issue where you live is smart. That’s why I’ve worked to help this resolution pass in my home of St. Joseph County, location of South Bend. South Bend is is famous for the University of Notre Dame and for former mayor, now Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
St. Joseph County is one of the first localities nationally to take such a stand. The move pushes back against the lockdown mentality from public health authorities across the nation.
St. Joseph County’s health officer was probably the first in the state to issue a public health order demanding masks in 2020, long before the governor ever implemented his own mandate. Locals fought back and sued the county and its health officer, Robert Einterz. He admitted in court he never had the legal authority to force citizens to wear masks.
This is a local county health board that pushed a resolution last July declaring racism “a public health crisis,” months ahead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doing the same thing. No wonder local citizens are now on offense.
The truth is, vaccine passport programs aren’t going to just roll out in big, blue cities and states like New York, which already has its Excelsior Pass underway. Vaccination against a disease many Americans already have immunity to and many are at low risk from threatens to become an essential requirement to participate in communities all over the country.
Vaccine passports don’t necessarily have to be high-tech. They can involve essentially flashing your vaccine card to receive access or special rights.
Consider Carmel, Indiana, a few hours away from South Bend. In early April, the city announced it would reopen. Residents were told they would not have to wear masks to conduct business if they were vaccinated. Additionally, public employees who vaccinated could enjoy perks, like not testing or wearing masks. The press release said nothing about granting similar favors to those who have acquired natural immunity through previous infection, or those at low risk from the disease, such as the young.
Indiana passed weak vaccination passport protections at the state level, but even that almost didn’t happen. State legislative leaders stymied representatives’ efforts to protect the people’s rights.
It wasn’t until the final hours of this spring’s legislative session that a few lines of vaccine passport text were squeezed into a 53-page conference report. The language was simple, and only applies to government: “The state or local unit may not require an immunization passport.” Passport was broadly defined as “written, electronic or printed information.”
While this legislation is certainly an accomplishment, it is troubling that businesses in Indiana were not barred from asking for vaccine status. One lawmaker, Rep. Brad Barrett, tried to introduce a prohibition against businesses asking for vaccine status in April, but that effort went nowhere.
Additionally, Republican leadership killed an attempt to allow workers to decline vaccine mandates from employers. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce strongly opposed that legislation, and it essentially controls state lawmaking.
While conservatives have traditionally feared government control, we are all now well-aware of big business’s ability to exert its own heavy hand. Whether it’s tech companies shutting down our ability to communicate freely or corporate America ganging up to fight Republican efforts to improve voting integrity, they can pose a threat to us, too.
For example, Notre Dame made news recently as one of the first universities to require the COVID vaccine for 2021-22 enrollment, despite the virus posing essentially no risk to young, healthy college students and no such vaccine having full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. This means one of the most famous sites in South Bend has essentially put into place a vaccine passport system for its students. No vaccine status, no entry. (Notre Dame has said it will consider medical and religious exemptions.)
Eager to get the vaccination process started, in April the university declared it would start dropping virus restrictions on campus if it could get 90 percent of its current students vaccinated. Among the incentives they offered included giving the students back their outside basketball hoops and adding $15 to students’ dining cards.
Vaccinations for professors and staff are still optional, and so is participation in the university’s online tracking system—at least, for now. Many Notre Dame students hail from St. Joseph County, and of course many of the university’s employees live there.
With the Biden administration a lost cause, and Indiana passing only limited vaccine protection measures, St. Joseph County citizens were wise to take matters into their own hands. The resolution was crafted using Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order as a starting place and building up. It included the idea that every vaccine should be voluntary, and included the fact that not just government, but business as well, should steer clear of vaccine mandates.
The resolution states: “Covid-19 passports will create a two-tiered society where some people will have rights, and others will lose freedom.” It includes a warning that such passports could eventually be manipulated to restrict freedom based not just on vaccine status, but also on a range of other issues, like free speech, religious activity, or disability.
The resolution carries weight just as any official declaration of public policy does. Hopefully, it will further urgently needed local conversations on the dangers of limiting the public’s ability to move freely.
While it can be impossible for the average person to change something at the national or state level, individual voices carry more weight in a community. Your local officials go to the same restaurants you do, have kids in the same schools, and go to the same churches. You can reach them with a call, an email, a text.
If they want to get re-elected, most of them will get back to you personally. So if you want to push something politically, try it locally.