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Some Sonoma County businesses saying no to ‘vaccine passports’

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

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Mired in the orange tier for a month and a half now, many Sonoma County businesses are operating at limited capacity, a disadvantage that cuts into profit margins or, in some cases, has discouraged venues from reopening at all.

Many of them do have a path to boosting sales. They could require proof of full coronavirus vaccination or a recent negative test. Indoor and outdoor live performances, family entertainment centers, private receptions and conferences — all of them could increase their allowed capacity by insisting on “vaccine passports.”

So far, it doesn’t look like the concept is attracting many takers here.

“Honestly, as a business, the fact that the majority of our staff are not medical experts, we’re going to try to stay away from that,” said Jenny Ogston, general manager of the Epicenter Sports and Entertainment complex. “I think the worst-case scenario is a 17- or 18-year-old staff member trying to debate the vaccination issue with a customer. Because there’s not a lot of clarity or absolutes. I don’t want to put them in that situation.”

California will not require an official vaccine passport for residents when it lifts social distancing requirements on June 15, Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said Friday. But the state Department of Public Health endorsed the model in mid-April when it revamped the color-coded tier system it has used to structure COVID safety measures based on a county’s virus rates.

Within the orange tier of the current guidelines, proof of vaccination or testing can increase capacity for indoor performances at smaller venues (1,500 or fewer seats) from 15% to 35%. Larger indoor performances can jump from 10% to 35%, outdoor performances from 33% to 67%, family entertainment centers from 25% to 50%, and private outdoor events such as wedding receptions from 100 people to 300. Indoor private events can be staged only if they require vaccine passports.

The passport is not universally welcomed, though. Critics bristle at the intrusion on privacy, or worry that it may create groups of haves and have-nots when some people have received only one shot, or can’t get a COVID vaccination at all because of an underlying condition. Other analysts note that unlike, say, a state ID that bears a holographic image, a vaccination card would be a relatively easy document to forge.

7 Ten Social at Epicenter in Santa Rosa is crowded with bowlers as Sonoma County's economy begins to open further, Thursday, May 20, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
7 Ten Social at Epicenter in Santa Rosa is crowded with bowlers as Sonoma County's economy begins to open further, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“It’s a lot easier to fake the vaccination card than a driver’s license. So there is that concern,” Dr. Sundari Mase, the Sonoma County health officer, acknowledged. “And there have already been a few cases of people who have produced fake vaccination cards.”

In one of those cases, authorities arrested a San Joaquin County bar owner and accused him of selling phony laminated cards for $20 each.

Generally, there is widespread public support for the idea of a vaccine passport. A poll released last week by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies showed that 63% of Californians approve of some businesses asking for the two forms of proof, with 33% disapproving. The approval rate was 82% among Democrats, 31% among Republicans.

Large-scale arenas and stadiums were quick to jump at the opportunity. Anyone attending the Warriors’ play-in game at Chase Center last Friday had to show a fully completed vaccination card or negative COVID test administered with 48 hours of game time. The Giants adopted the vaccine passport for their home opener at Oracle Park on April 9, but dropped the requirement Friday — for socially distanced sections of seating, anyway. The team will also have fully vaccinated sections that require proof.

Epicenter in Santa Rosa  has seen an uptick in business as Sonoma County's economy begins to open further, Thursday, May 20, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Epicenter in Santa Rosa has seen an uptick in business as Sonoma County's economy begins to open further, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

At least one Sonoma County venue will follow suit. The board of directors of the Raven Theater in Healdsburg decided Wednesday to ask for vaccination proof from all guests 12 and older.

“I’ll be making a large poster for outside the theater and getting it on our website,” marketing director Carol Noack said. “We will staff each event with one of our volunteers tasked exclusively with checking the vax cards.”

Music promoter Bryce Dow-Williamson, who booked the Rainbow Girls concert staged Friday at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park — one of the few sizable live shows in the county in more than a year — said he is monitoring the option, too.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

“Initially, it was like, ‘OK, we’ll ask for proof of vaccination or negative test,’” Dow-Williamson said. “Then it was, well, how do we divide those people up? That’s the benefit of dealing with larger folks (on tour). They have some other guinea pigs we can watch.”

One industry poised to make use of vaccine passports is event planning. It’s hard to imagine an occupation hit harder by the pandemic than wedding planners, who, at least in California, went most of the year without any work.

As receptions become a thing again, most clients are asking for the vaccination proof that might allow them bigger invite lists, said Corina Beczner, owner of Santa Rosa-based Vibrant Events.

“My interpretation is if you want to have a wedding or work a wedding this year, you should probably be 100% vaccinated,” she said.

Not that the process is easy. As Beczner noted, vaccine passports mean a planner must coordinate with vendors like caterers and florists; if they’re going to be on-site, they must comply as well. “That gets weird with HIPAA,” she said, referring to the federal law that ensures privacy for medical patients.

It can present logistical challenges, too. Beczner is looking at using an app called CrowdPass, an encrypted technology that would allow her to scan guests’ phones and verify their vaccination status as they step off the shuttle bus to the reception site. She can do that, she said, because she tends to handle luxury weddings.

“There’s more available in our budgets to add in services like testing on site, or adding in an app, which costs money,” Beczner said. “Those are things my clientele are willing to do. The hard part is when there’s no planner involved. Like when a family wants to invite 150 people, and they’re not willing to compromise.”

Not every establishment is willing to absorb those headaches.

“I wouldn’t do it,” said James Pattison, owner of Windsor Bowling Center. “I just think it would be too hard to police that. With the amount of people we have coming in and out on a daily basis, it would be very difficult to do. Me personally, I’m not really a fan of asking people what their medical history is.”

There’s another reason some businesses are leery of the vaccine passport system. They aren’t clear on the county guidance. The information in the tiers is pretty explicit for family entertainment centers, for example. But until she sees specific approval of vaccine passports in the county health order, Jenny Ogston said, Epicenter can’t take the risk.

That’s a common sentiment. Many business owners and managers, it seems, are unsure of their current footing, especially as CDC, state and county guidelines on COVID safety have begun to diverge. Multiple people interviewed for this story were under the impression that requiring proof of vaccination could ease requirements for things like masking and social distancing. Under a strict reading of the tiers, that is not the case.

Despite the confusion and skepticism regarding vaccine passports, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said he’s “more comfortable with it than not” as his county continues its push for herd immunity.

“I think if you incentivize people to get the vaccine, saying life will be much easier — that you won’t have to sit with a mask on an airplane, or whatever it may be,” Rabbitt said, “that’s not the worst thing to get that last 20% of folks over the top.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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