Montgomery County Council members on Tuesday showed initial signs of support for a vaccine passport proposal for some businesses, but had questions on enforcement and how it would be applied countywide.
In late December, County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration unveiled the proposal, which applies to restaurants, movie theaters, entertainment venues and other similar establishments. Customers and visitors would have to show proof that they were vaccinated.
It exempts those with credible medical or religious reasons, along with many businesses and entities with essential services: grocery stores, medical facilities, government buildings, and numerous others. Houses of worship are also exempt.
Residents who are only briefly in a business — like making a delivery or picking up a take-out order from a restaurant — are also exempt.
If enacted, residents would be required to show proof of at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Jan. 21. They can either show their vaccine card, a copy of it or an electronic record of their vaccine history.
By Feb. 15, customers 12 and older would need to show they received one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine or two doses of a two-dose vaccine. By March 1, patrons five years and one month old and older must provide proof they’ve received two doses of a vaccine.
Council Member Andrew Friedson said Tuesday that he supports the vaccine passport idea, but he previously was interested in creating an “opt-in” passport option. For that, the county would provide technological assistance to businesses that want to opt-in to a vaccine mandate for their establishments.
But Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard told council members that there have been logistical, software and technological challenges with accessing the data via the Maryland Department of Health and its records.
He added that some businesses were concerned that opting in voluntarily would give an advantage to businesses that do not require proof of vaccination.
Stoddard said some businesses already require proof of vaccinations, but a more formal proposal would hopefully encourage participation among businesses and customers countywide.
County Council President Gabe Albornoz and Council Member Hans Riemer highlighted another logistical issue Tuesday — the definition of “fully vaccinated.” Since boosters provide additional protection against the coronavirus, versus an initial dose series, officials shouuld consider whether the proposal should reflect that change, Albornoz and Riemer said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not changed its definition of “fully vaccinated” to include boosters. Stoddard said county officials modeled the proposal on the one Washington, D.C., recently announced.
He said county health officials would support changing the parameters of the passport to include boosters, but that would require more effort by businesses to confirm whether a person is eligible to receive a booster.
James Bridgers, the county’s acting health officer, said the council could amend the vaccine passport to reflect that in the future, after passing the current draft.
Council Member Sidney Katz asked county health and legal officials how religious and medical exemptions would be enforced under the passport proposal.
Silvia Kinch, chief of the Division of Labor Relations and Public Safety in the county attorney’s office, said businesses and those seeking exemptions would need to work out accommodations on how to best serve the customer.
It’s similar to accommodations that businesses make for customers who provide a medical exemption for not being able to wear a mask, Kinch said.
“The establishment is supposed to engage in a conversation with that person, to see if they can reach a reasonable accommodation, to determine how they can best access those services,” Kinch said.
“For instance, a movie theater isn’t going to stream movies so that a person can watch them at home without wearing a mask — then it would be unduly burdensome, and the accommodation wouldn’t be available,” she added. “It’s the same tools, just a little bit different of a conversation.”
In response, Katz said he was concerned about the burden put on the person at the entrance of a business, and how they verify a true exemption vs a fake one. He requested that county officials explain how to address that issue.
Albornoz said at least one more work session will be held on the proposal, giving businesses and other stakeholders a chance to comment. Also, a public hearing is scheduled for Jan. 18.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org