Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. Dec. 22, 2021, to include additional comments from County Council President Gabe Albornoz.

Montgomery County is finalizing plans for a vaccine passport proposal similar to one announced in Washington, D.C., in which proof of vaccination would be required for customers at many businesses.

The proposal is expected to come before the Montgomery County Council — sitting as the Board of Health — to consider in the coming weeks. The plan can’t happen without the council’s approval.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz said in an interview Wednesday that he agrees with the idea “in principle,” but he has questions about the legality of the measure, and how the passport requirement would be administered and enforced.

That includes the software to ensure it works between businesses and residents, and he wants to hear from business leaders on the issue, Albornoz said. Even though it’s not the entire region, it does tie two jurisdictions in which people frequently cross borders, he added.

“We do have to start somewhere, and I would venture the most cross-jurisdiction commerce [with Montgomery County] happens in D.C., and so it’s the strongest place to start,” Albornoz said. “And other jurisdictions are waiting, perhaps, to see what others are doing.”

Washington, D.C., announced its plan on Wednesday. It will require patrons 12 and older to show proof, starting Jan. 15 at 6 a.m., that they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Proof of full vaccination will be required starting Feb. 15.

Montgomery County officials said later during a news briefing that Montgomery County’s plan would be similar to the District’s, so there could be a regional approach.

County Executive Marc Elrich said during the briefing that the focus for the passport would be on indoor dining, entertainment venues, gyms and similar businesses that customers visit, just like D.C.’s new requirement.

He said it’s important to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus, especially in places where people might remove their masks for an extended period of time.

Montgomery County currently has an indoor mask mandate. On Monday, Washington, D.C., reinstated its indoor mask mandate, beginning Tuesday morning.

“My focus is on the place where you sit for an hour, you don’t have a mask on or you’re exercising and exhaling without a mask on,” Elrich said. “Those all, to me, are really much more problematic.”

Elrich said he doesn’t believe it would drive customers to jurisdictions without the passport requirement — Northern Virginia, Prince George’s County and Frederick County — as much as critics might suggest.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said the Board of Health would need to act on any proposal that the administration finalizes. He said county officials drafted language for a possible vaccine passport as early as September, and are tweaking the wording now that Washington, D.C., announced its proposal Wednesday.

Along with the overall economic concerns, some businesses have been concerned about logistical and operational challenges from the passport, Stoddard said. For instance, Stoddard said, some business owners have wondered about their liability if they allow in people with fake vaccine cards.

Stoddard said Montgomery County’s and D.C.’s proposals come as similar actions have been called for or carried out in other urban areas nationwide, like New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia. 

Even though Montgomery County has a high vaccination rate, the Washington, D.C., region attracts people from around the country and the world, Stoddard said.

“We have a lot of federal officials who live and work and bring guests into Montgomery County,” Stoddard said. “We want to make sure that our residents are kept safe by people who are not necessarily from Montgomery County, and from the small portion of our county residents who are not vaccinated.”

The Board of Health is tentatively scheduled to meet Jan. 4.

Albornoz said the County Council had not heard from Elrich’s administration before it announced its vaccine passport proposal, and that the council would need much more information and time to review the idea before that meeting. 

“There is still a lot more work to be done before this is ready for prime time,” Albornoz said. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com