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Anne Arundel explores instituting vaccine passport system

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman says the county is exploring whether to set up a vaccination passport system. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Vaccine passports could be coming to Anne Arundel County.

County Executive Steuart Pittman told reporters he has been having discussions with his staff on the use of the passports and is working on finding a vendor. The first-term Democrat said he believes such a system could help businesses and the county encourage vaccinations among employees and customers and restore some consumer confidence lost during the pandemic.

“Yes, we are working towards creating a passport system so that these kinds of things can be implemented,” Pittman said.

Pittman gave few details but told reporters Tuesday to expect an announcement in the near future.

Anne Arundel County is the second jurisdiction in the state to announce it is considering adopting a method for identifying who has and has not been vaccinated.

A spokesman for Pittman said a vendor would “help facilitate for private entities a vaccine passport style app or program to make it easier for businesses, nonprofits and others to check  that vaccine (status) as they reopen.”

Pittman told reporters he plans to hold a meeting with business leaders to hear their concerns about reopening during the pandemic. Among the topics, he said, would be efforts to raise consumer confidence as they return to pre-pandemic activities.

Mark Kleinschmidt, president and CEO of the Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce, said his members have not taken a position on vaccine mandates but are concerned about restoring customer confidence.

“The position we have taken in terms of the recovery here is that customer confidence is a key element moving forward in dealing with COVID,” said Kleinschmidt. “Any tools out there that can help promote more customer confidence in terms of people being fully vaccinated in a store, taking the right precautions to ensure they are socially distanced, is a key element. It’s just obviously a lot of details involved in it.”

Whether or not such a policy is a mandate could become a central issue.

“The chamber has not taken a position on this yet because it’s a pretty fluid situation,” said Kleinschmidt. “How do you go about doing it, and can you mandate it? Does the government have the authority to mandate it? I don’t know if that question has been answered yet.”

Such a program would likely assist the county in verifying vaccination status of its employees. All county employees will be required on Sept. 13 to prove they have been vaccinated or show proof of a weekly test.

The county also recently announced a $1,000-per-employee incentive to get vaccinated. Employees who are already vaccinated will be eligible for the payment, too.

The county executive’s vision may differ from the mandatory passport use supported by Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich.

A week ago, Elrich told reporters he would likely ask his county council, which also sits as the county health board, to support vaccine passports. The passport would be needed for some indoor activities, including dining.

Elrich said he hoped other executives would join him but said his county was willing to go it alone.

A spokesman for Baltimore County said there are no discussions to implement a passport system. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. recently enacted a 30-day state of emergency to allow for quick responses as cases surge.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said his county is urging all unvaccinated residents to get shots but is not considering a passport program.

“Should a statewide approach or a statewide vendor be considered, as Maryland residents regularly travel among multiple jurisdictions within the state, we would be open to working with our state partners,” said Ball.

Some businesses in Ball’s county, including Merriweather Post Pavilion, are requiring customers to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend concerts and some other events.

Pittman’s plan, which is yet to be fully developed, would likely involve the hiring of a vendor to standardize how vaccinations are confirmed but as yet does not include a mandate.

“We are in conversations right now with a vendor and hope to have a contract soon to facilitate these kinds of mandates by businesses to make it less burdensome  on the businesses so that people’s vaccination status as well as their testing status, if they are trying to comply with a mandate that requires testing within a certain number of days before an event or certain kind of activity,” said Pittman.

What is not clear is how some businesses and customers will view the program even if it was voluntarily adopted.

“A lot of individual businesses can make their own decisions on how they want to do things in terms of employees and customers,” said Kleinschmidt.

Some customers who opt to not get vaccinated may feel alienated or angered by passport policies.

“That is a piece of it,” said Kleinschmidt. “Is the glass half full or half empty? Some folks have decided that the vaccine is not something that they want to do for various reasons. There’s obviously some people who would feel infringed upon. That may be reflected in them voting with their fee on where they go or don’t go.

“That’s the prerogative of the customer,” he said. “But again, it’s all about how do we restore consumer confidence and employee confidence for that matter. It’s a tricky situation to say the least.”