Should Proof of Vaccination Be Required to Attend Events?

Event and meeting producers share their thoughts on the controversial concept of "vaccine passports."

New York's Excelsior Pass

As COVID-19 vaccinations become more readily available throughout North America, event producers and venues are grappling with a big question: Should proof of vaccination be required to enter an event?

Some gatherings—like health industry trade shows HIMSS21 Health and Safety Hub, taking place in Las Vegas in August, and HLTH 2021, taking place in Boston in October—have already announced that in-person attendees will need to be fully vaccinated. Similarly, some concert and sporting venues like the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden in New York are reserving entire seating sections for vaccinated guests.

While the practice has sparked a heated debate, fact-checking website Snopes notes that it is entirely legal for businesses to ask for proof of vaccination, since HIPAA rules only apply to healthcare providers. But for event producers in particular, questions still remain on how to enforce it, what types of health screenings should still be in place for vaccinated guests, the ethics of requiring vaccination and much more.

To get some insight, we asked eight event producers throughout North America to share how they're approaching the situation.

Matt Stoelt, CEO and creative director, Stoelt Productions, Los Angeles
“Taking steps to ensure safety and implementing simple measures such as a health screening or proof of a negative test or vaccination to minimize risk and the spread of the virus should remain in place for the foreseeable future. By doing so, I feel that more brands will begin to activate again, and consumer confidence will continue to grow. To that end, costs, timing and logistics of enforcing these policies are much easier said than done, and the onus continues to fall on both the producers and ultimately our clients. To help minimize these costs and ease the logistics of these challenges, I fully endorse the implementation of automation and the use of so-called ‘vaccination passports’ where consumers can either upload a vacation card or proof of a negative test result within seven days of the event taking place. Once verified, the attendees and staff could then receive a scannable QR code presented at the door during the health check. This automation significantly reduces the time and cumbersome logistics at check-in, and allows for events to flow on a somewhat pre-COVID timeline.”

Maggie Barton Baird, principal, MB & Company, Edmonton, Alberta
“All this talk about vaccine passports has me worried. Some communities have less access and less trust in vaccinations due to systemic barriers and discriminatory histories. I'm not talking about anti-vaxxers—I'm talking about those with a strained history with vaccines. Will we unintentionally discriminate against marginalized communities by requiring these passports (or proof) at events? … I know for travel we require vaccinations, but this isn't traveling. This is your industry conference, fundraising galas for causes that are close to your heart, community gatherings, etc. Do these people deserve to be cut off from attending?”

David Tutera, celebrity wedding and event planner, David Tutera Inc., Los Angeles
“From an event planning perspective, requiring vaccinations can be logistically challenging to enforce or monitor. If a client decides to make vaccinations mandatory for their event, they should be prepared for potentially uncomfortable or awkward conversations with potential guests, especially since vaccinations are a hot button issue. Regardless of your stance on vaccinations, there’s no foolproof way to verify that proof of vaccination is legitimate—relying on this method to ensure your guests’ safety leaves a lot of room for error, and I don’t see it as the right solution to protect guests from COVID-19 transmission at large-scale events. Instead, I’d highly advise event planners to put proven COVID-19 safety protocols in place and ensure everyone complies.

For example, our team recently hosted an in-person educational conference, called the DAVID TUTERA Experience, in Orlando. To pull this off, we put in place safety standards that the host, planner and venue were all comfortable with—while observing recommended CDC guidelines, of course. To ensure guests complied, we provided them with safety expectations prior to the event. I find this to be a much better approach than getting into a heated debate about people’s personal decisions to get vaccinated. … If you’re going to require vaccinations to attend an event, keep in mind this doesn’t absolve you from implementing other important COVID-19 safety protocols.”

Anna Anisin, founder and CEO, FormulatedBy, Miami
“We are [requiring vaccinations]. As part of the initial registration process, registrants must agree to our terms and conditions, which include adhering to our outlined COVID-19 safety protocols and a requirement that they are fully vaccinated. In order to complete their registration and be accepted to attend our live event, they must send a copy of their vaccination card, or other official proof that they are fully vaccinated, at least 48 hours prior to the event. As part of this, they will also be required to sign a confirmation that their proof of vaccination is theirs and is accurate. Any registrants that do not adhere to this will be sent a notification that they will not be able to enter the venue. Anyone not able to provide proof of vaccination will be turned away for the live event, but will still be able to attend virtually. … All attendees will complete a screening survey and a touchless temperature check as they enter the venue, even though they are vaccinated. These simple screens are extremely effective, and only further help ensure the protection and safety of our guests and staff.”

Greg Jenkins, Partner, Bravo Productions, Long Beach, Calif.
“We are working on two projects for the fall and one next spring that involve larger outdoor gatherings such as public community and educational festivals. In addition to limiting the attendance capacity to allow for more social distancing and less crowding, discussions are underway to incorporate entrance by either a vaccine ‘pass’ or rapid testing with a negative COVID result before entering the venue space. Because we have low levels of COVID in Los Angeles County and high rates of vaccinations, the vaccine pass may not be required but strongly recommended. It might not make sense if the gathering is more on the local level where the virus rate is low and vaccinations are high. In the case of events that attract attendees from across the United States, I am strongly in favor of proof of vaccination. 

One of our corporate clients is requiring all employees who return to the office to show proof of vaccination. This will extend to any company event they host, including those solely for staff and those with invited guests. We are deferring to guidance from the public health departments and the state of California. As an event production company, we are requiring our entire team to be vaccinated, as well our suppliers and vendors and their staff who work with us, and will have personnel at the event site. Public health and safety is foremost to the event’s success.”

Melissa Park, owner, Melissa Park Events, New York
“While we’re being told that vaccination will significantly reduce our chances of getting infected and infecting others, they are not 100% effective. There is still a margin of error, and a small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated can still get COVID-19 if they are exposed to the virus that causes it. The collection of vaccination certification is a step in the right direction, however given there is still a level of uncertainty around its effectiveness and the level of immunity it provides, I will still be requesting that every registrant provide a negative test result taken within three days of the event and temperature checking each day on arrival as a requirement of entry. In addition, pre-event communication will ask anyone experiencing COVID symptoms to cancel their plans to attend the event. Given what the industry has just endured, I don’t believe you can be ‘too safe.’ You just have to design a user-friendly process to deliver all of your requirements as conveniently, speedily and seamlessly as possible.”

 Shelly Tolo, president, Tolo Events, Seattle
“We have an outdoor charity event in August where our client is requesting only vaccinated guests attend. In this instance, it is a brunch and fashion show and the models are all cancer survivors. The request is a way to help protect the immunocompromised. There is a virtual component where all guests are welcome to participate. We worked really hard on the wording to make sure people truly understood why it was for the vaccinated only.”

Valerie Bihet, owner, VIBE Agency, Miami
“The event I am producing is for my clients so at some point I can only make recommendations, but the client has the final word. I definitely recommend having people vaccinated. … Even so, I cannot force it because we're in a free country. If people don't want to be vaccinated, that is their choice. What I can enforce, though, is that I expect everyone to have proof of a negative PCR test before they come to the event, agree to get one again every day while there, and agree to report any symptoms after the event if they get home and test positive. … By communicating (and enforcing) the testing expectations and our measures it will help everyone feel more comfortable, and while we cannot guarantee anything, we can cut the risk.”

Top photo: In March, New York launched the Excelsior Pass, an IBM-created app that allows residents to present digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results. The pass was initially tested at sporting events at the Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden. (Photo courtesy of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo's Press Office)

This story was originally published on Connect's sister site, BizBash.com, here.