Acting Boston Mayor: Hold up on those immunity passports

A couple of weeks ago, President Biden tapped Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be his Secretary of Labor, causing Walsh to step down from his position. Under the city’s election laws, City Council President Kim Janey was elevated to serve as the acting mayor for the rest of Walsh’s term. (She will be able to run for a full term of her own in November.) Being suddenly thrust into that position in the middle of a pandemic might not be the most enviable situation imaginable, but the business of the city must continue apace. Janey was immediately hit with the question of immunity passports in one of the first interviews she participated in this weekend. Her response was admirably restrained and might serve as an example for other, more autocratic executives around the country. (CBS Boston)

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey is urging caution before pursuing the implementation of so-called vaccination “passports” as a requirement for access to businesses and institutions in the city.

“That is a slippery slope,” said Janey in an exclusive WBZ-TV interview set to air Sunday morning on the WBZ Sunday morning news. “We have to make sure first and foremost that the vaccine is available, that there is equitable access to it and that there is confidence in the vaccine.”

Some economic sectors, including airlines and universities, are already warning customers they will need at some point to show proof of vaccination in order to board planes or attend classes. But Janey says “until we get to herd immunity we have to be careful about denying access to certain things.”

It still sounds as if Janey is willing to consider making immunity passports mandatory at some point, but at least for the moment, she’s reminding people of one of the worst aspects of such a policy. As of last week, only 35% of Boston residents have been vaccinated. The rate among Black residents is 28% and Hispanic residents clock in at an even more dismal 22.2%. That leaves a lot of people who have either been unable to get an appointment or are holding off. The acting mayor correctly notes that locking all of those people out of various public activities would be disastrous.

In terms of how many people could have been vaccinated but are hesitant to do so, I’m not sure what (if any) impact this morning’s news about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will have, but it’s probably not going to be a positive effect. While the number of people who actually had severe reactions to the J&J shot is minuscule, it’s still not the sort of headline the CDC wanted to see blasting across the cable news networks today. This is another example of how timing can be everything. It was only Sunday when acting mayor Janey said that her city needed to be sure “there is confidence in the vaccine.” And then, barely 48 hours later, the news cycle delivers another curveball.

Getting back to the original issue, this is a question that government executives at every level are going to have to face sooner or later. These immunity passports are never going to be entirely fair to everyone and they represent a drastic shift in how our society operates. If they must be put into use, it should not be through executive fiat, but through the normal legislative process, giving the voters a chance to weigh in. And I’m guessing that the voters will be cooler to the idea than many of these politicians anticipate.