What’s it like to be the person who checks people’s vaccine credentials at a public venue in New York City? I was introduced to a man who does that at a major tourist venue. We chatted by phone. Here’s the conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, and posted here on the condition that we not use his name or the name of the venue.
For further detail, here’s our piece on the New York Excelsior Pass and I’ll insert a link to a piece on vaccine credentials in general.
What is it like to be looking at these credentials? I feel like it could be a little bit weird and scary, right?
It’s definitely weird and a little bit scary. Although I have three shots in me and I sanitize my hands all the time. And I wear a mask.
What does it feel like?
It’s stressful. There’s always a few people that don’t have proof of vaccination. And whether it’s because they forgot it, or they actually never got vaccinated, we don’t know, but we have to turn away anybody that doesn’t have proof of vaccination.
The kind of confusing thing is, I’m getting people from all over the world. And there’s no uniform way to show proof of vaccination. Basically, we have to take the word of the document or the thing on the phone that they show us, which is unnerving. Because, I mean, a kid with computer could make a counterfeit United States C.D.C. card, you know
There’s a couple exceptions, like the country of Colombia — I think it’s Colombia — they have it on their phone. When they showed me on the phone, not only does it have their name, it has their photo as well and a QR code. The problem also is that we wouldn’t even have time to scan all those, to seriously check them out, just because the sheer number of people coming into the venue — you just don’t have time for every single person to scan this QR code.
‘Is this real? Or did somebody just make this?’
Because you actually feel like you’re responsible for the health and safety of everybody in the venue?
Yeah, and it’s unnerving. Because we only have a certain amount of ability to do it. Like I said, we basically have to take the word of the document or the smartphone screen that people are showing us.
There are times where I think, is this real? Is this an actual thing, or did somebody just make this? There are some countries like China and Japan, since they use characters instead of our kind of alphabet, the only really thing that is in English that they print on theirs is their name and then the kind of vaccination, like Moderna or Pfizer, or whatever. So, unless you read Chinese or Japanese, you don’t really know what the heck that document is, or if they just created on their computer.
So it’s a weird position to be in. I would hate to have some sort of outbreak happen where I work. We’ve had just about two years now of being in a pandemic, and I would think that the technology and verification, and everything else would be a lot more advanced worldwide than it is.
In the United States, if you look at the C.D.C. card, there’s no barcodes, nothing to scan, there’s no watermarks, there’s no security features anywhere.
Different states, countries
We started to look at New York’s Excelsior pass, and then we realized that there are standards for the 50 different states, and then once you look at the problem globally…. At your venue, is it 50% of the people are international visitors, or more?
Right now, I’d probably have to say about 50%. Before the pandemic, you’d probably be closer to 60 or 65% international, and then the rest domestic. But since there are some travel restrictions, it’s about 50-50 right now.
I’m seeing documents from Israel and South Africa, and India and Japan, China, the U.K., Chile, Colombia, anywhere around the world. I don’t live in that country. So how do I know this is legit? You know, it’s a little unnerving sometimes, but hey, I can only do what I’m supposed to do, given what protocols are in place. And just kind of hope for the best.
Do the U.S. documents vary greatly also?
One problem is that sometimes doctors or similar places will run out of the actual cards, so they’ll just have one on their computer at the clinic or something, and just print it out on a piece of computer paper. I can’t technically deny those. But on the other hand, I’m like, “Did they just download a photo of a blank one and print it out on a piece of paper? Or did their physician or pharmacy run out of cards and had to improvise?”
It’s definitely unsettling. It’s one thing that has not been developed over the last year, almost two years. I’m still surprised that we have such a haphazard kind of slapped-together system for this.
Some are resentful that they must show a pass
So what does it feel like to be standing in front of a crowd of people who want to get into your very popular venue? And you’re looking at these documents and going “Gosh, I don’t know — the health and safety of all of these people depend upon me.”
I do I have other work posts as well. At work, I do six different locations with different jobs. And just one of the posts is the checking the photo ID’s and vaccination records. We usually have two employees doing that. It feels like pressure also, because not a lot of people, but some people, feel really resentful that they have to present this to go to this venue.
It’s a tense kind of situation — the majority of people are fine about it, and they realize it. We have signs posted that New York City has a mandate that you have to have at least one dose of vaccine to enter this business or this venue. But some people get resentful, like, “Oh, why do I have to show this? I’m just going to blah, blah, blah.”
It does feel like a pressurized environment. I’m usually glad when I rotate to the next post.
Do you have to turn people away sometimes?
When I turn people away, it’s a little bit uncomfortable. But luckily for me, at that particular post, so many people are going in there, there’s always a line, and we have to quickly move the line
So off to the side, we have a booth called “Guest Services.” So if something’s wrong with ticket or the vaccination confirmation – they go there. If somebody says, “Oh, I, I forgot it,” I say, “You’re going to go to Guest Services, and they’ll try to help you out with that.” And then I can continue keeping that line flowing in.
If they don’t have any proof of vaccination, Guest Services might suggest ways to do that. They might be able to get it on their phone, but in most instances, they’re denied access.
‘Angry and disappointed’
Do people get rambunctious? Do the cops get called ever because of somebody being turned away?
Not so far that I’ve been working, but I’ve only been working there for about a month. There is a strong sense of security at my venue. There are plenty of police and a police command center for the area of buildings my venue is a part of. Nobody gets too pushy, because it’s a very high-profile place with very strict security.
I mean, they’ll get really angry and everything but they won’t try to continue to go on through. Mostly you’ll see some a little bit angry and, or disappointed, especially when it’s a group of like, say four people and three of them have their IDs and their proof of vaccination and then the one person doesn’t. I’ve seen that before, where the one person will just leave the venue, or hang out at the shopping area connected to the venue. Sometimes the group will be like “Oh, let’s do something else then.”
It’s also awkward when there are parents with small children, and one of the parents doesn’t have proof of vaccination. It really tugs at my heartstrings because I don’t want to turn away a kid, because it’s really fascinating.
Little kids love the venue and when you have to turn them away because one of their parents didn’t do what they’re supposed to do or read up on what you have to know, it’s kind of a bummer. But you just have to shrug it off and continue working.
So let’s say you have four people in a family — one kid under five, one kid who’s eight. So, so the kids who are under five don’t have to get vaccinated.
Yeah, they don’t have to be vaccinated. And for the kids 12 and older, they have to be vaccinated. At my venue, they haven’t gone below 12 yet. Just because the they’re giving more time for children to get vaccinated.
And then also with anybody under 18: 12 and older have to show proof of vaccination, but a lot of these 12- and 13-year-olds don’t have an ID. They might have a school ID, which we’ll just have to take it for what it is. Sometimes they don’t have any ID, so I just kind of look at the vaccine card and say, “Well, I hope that’s your name. And I hope that’s you.” It’s hard to ID somebody below 18 years of age, unless they’re always carrying their school ID wherever they go.
‘I have a medical exemption’
What is the weirdest credential you’ve ever seen?
They’re actually all pretty normal-looking to me. The only thing that I did see that I had to send them to Guest Services — this is an issue too that’s not really talked about: One woman says, “I have a medical exemption.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to send you to Guest Services.” I never ended up knowing how that went.
We require proof of vaccinations.
We keep hearing people saying they had Covid and don’t need to be vaccinated. I personally know several dozen people have been infected twice, some three times. So having had it once doesn’t protect you from having it again. I think that’s weird misinformation. I hope that they don’t get sick, but if they’re refusing vaccination, because they think they’re protected, they’re wrong.
Yeah, one of my best friends is a schoolteacher down in Philly. He had both of his doses and he had a breakthrough case — he still ended up getting Covid from one of the unvaccinated students
The strange size of the C.D.C. card
Do you personally have an Excelsior pass or a New York City Covid safe pass?
My girlfriend has the Excelsior thing. I’m, I’m kind of I’m kind of an old man with technology. So I carry my card and my ID and my wallet everywhere I go.
I have been meaning to do the Excelsior thing. I’ll probably have my girlfriend help me out with that because I know it would be convenient — it’d be a good backup as well, in case I take my card out for something at home and then I forget to put it back in my wallet or something like that.
One funny little thing too — is not like a big deal or anything, but the size of the C.D.C. card is terribly inconvenient. We see people pulling out their cards when they come to my venue: some are folded in half and some are folded in half twice. Luckily, my wallet fits it, just barely.
That’s another kind of little minor detail about the whole United States card thing — they made it such an awkward size that it’s not that easy to carry around.
You know, we’re hearing a lot of problems with the Excelsior pass — for a bunch of different reasons, like government doesn’t do technology very well. Or databases never talk to each other very well.
What kind of threw me off is a couple of times where I’ve checked an Excelsior pass and it’s actually somebody from a different state — like a California ID. I didn’t know that people from out of state could use it, but sure enough, I’ve seen it multiple times that you know, there’ll be a different state ID on there. I thought this was just for like New York State.
States vs. federal government
Yeah, I’ve talked to three experts now about this. And they say things like, we don’t have a national health policy, like Germany has the national health policy, the United Kingdom, France have a national health policy. We have a federal government — it can say, “well, we want this to happen,” but basically health policy lives in the states.
It goes back to the way we made our government so heavy on on states’ powers over federal. I think some things need to change. If we’re really the United States, why are we acting like 50 different countries? We need to have more unity and uniformity in things such as what we’re talking about — vaccination verification and documentation and all that stuff.
Do you have a mask mandate at your venue to that you have to enforce?
Yeah, you do have to have a mask on at all times. And we’ll be telling people, “Put on your mask, please.”
It’s weird, because even this past summer, my buddy and I went on a camping trip to Pennsylvania. Once we got into Pennsylvania, I could not believe that nobody anywhere was wearing masks outside of Philadelphia — in the rest of the state, people weren’t wearing masks.
But yeah, we do have a mask mandate. We are pretty strict. It’s uncomfortable to tell people put their mask on, or tell them if they’re not wearing it, right. We say, “Can you please wear your mask properly? Put it over your nose?” A lot of people don’t like being told what to do. But hey, nobody’s forcing you to come to our venue.
Have you had people who came in with vaccines that were not approved by the WHO like anybody with the Russian vaccines, Sputnik or anything?
So far, so far, not yet. I haven’t seen anything like that yet. It’d be a good thing to ask at work what’s the deal on them? What’s the policy for people who have been vaccinated with the not fully approved ones? But no, it hasn’t happened to me.
What you should know
Are there things that you would want people to know about the job that you’re doing? Like, “Please be kind, I’m only doing my job,” or “It’s for your own good”?
You pretty much covered it with that right there. It’s like, “Hey, we’re doing our jobs.”
Also, when you’re going someplace, research where you’re going. When I travel internationally, or even to other states or to a specific venue, I do research. Is there something I need to know about this place before I go? So I don’t show up and have a less enjoyable time or not even get entry into this place.
People need to definitely do a couple minutes of research on where they’re going. There are people that have come to New York City, who had no idea that we have a mask mandate in businesses, and on trains, because in a large section of our country, a lot of people are walking around like there’s no pandemic going on — no masks, no nothing.
To reiterate, look into where you’re going, especially if it’s far from your home. Don’t just show up clueless.
Soon: A link to our piece on vaccine credentials in general
Jeanne Pinder is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded ClearHealthCosts.
She was previously a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University School of Journalism. ClearHealthCosts has won grants from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York; the International Women’s Media Foundation; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with KQED public radio in San Francisco and KPCC in Los Angeles; the Lenfest Foundation in Philadelphia for a partnership with The Philadelphia Inquirer; and the New York State Health Foundation for a partnership with WNYC public radio/Gothamist in New York; and other honors.
Her TED talk about fixing health costs has surpassed 2 million views.