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Vaccine passports launched in Las Vegas but privacy, choice still concerns

Las Vegas is no stranger to exclusive VIP lists, but there’s a new way of limiting guest access coming to town: vaccine passports.

These digital credential systems can show whether someone has been vaccinated against COVID-19 and can help businesses limit access to those who have been inoculated. The systems were designed to increase health and safety at various venues, but experts warn of pushback over concerns on privacy and personal choice.

“What we’re seeing throughout the pandemic is people guarding their personal rights, and I think a lot of people will find that intrusive in their day to day,” said Jonathan Day, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at Purdue University.

The push for a standardized credential system comes as various venues plan to open only to vaccinated guests. Some cruise lines are limiting service to vaccinated travelers, and sports teams including the Miami Heat plan to offer sections only to vaccinated fans.

A handful of passports are already in the works, including two in Las Vegas. It is not yet clear if any Las Vegas businesses will limit access solely to vaccinated guests.

How it works

The Washington Post has reported that the White House and private companies are working on a standard way of handling COVID-19 vaccine credential systems that can track Americans’ health information such as COVID-19 inoculations or recent COVID-19 test results.

The technology is expected to work similarly to mobile apps for airlines. Users can download the passport onto their smartphone and gain access to a scannable code that offers health information.

Related: Health passport aims to help bring conventions back to Las Vegas

Health service company Reviv Global has launched its Heliix Health Passport in Las Vegas. The mobile app uses an encrypted code to show the results of a recent COVID-19 test, and could be implemented at hospitality venues such as restaurants, conventions, nightclubs and shows.

Julia Miles, Reviv’s commercial operations director, said the company is in “extended talks” with a number of major Las Vegas hotel-casino operators. So far, conversations have focused largely around using the technology to make sure resort or convention guests have recently tested negative for COVID-19 at one of Reviv’s local testing centers.

“We’re not hearing venues saying that they’ll be looking for vaccinations only. Personally, I don’t think that will happen just because it would be too discriminatory around people who genuinely can’t have the vaccine for whatever reason,” Miles said. “Not everyone will have the vaccine or want the vaccine, so there needs to be an alternative.”

Meanwhile, Las Vegas Sands Corp. announced Tuesday that it would be using mobile technology called Health Pass from identity company Clear. The application can show health information like COVID-19 test results and — in the near future — vaccination results, and will be used at on-site conventions, trade shows and meetings in Las Vegas.

“In-person meetings and trade shows are critical for their ability to drive commerce and networking,” said Chandra Alison, senior vice president of sales for The Venetian Resort and Sands Expo, in a Tuesday news release. “We are proud to offer a product that addresses the safety of meetings and customers can book with confidence.”

A Venetian spokesperson declined to comment on whether the company would limit access to any venues to those who have been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the virus. A statement via email said the resort “continues to follow guidelines set forth by the CDC and state and local officials. We have identified tools, including CLEAR, to help support our partners in the safe return of groups and events.”

As of Tuesday, nearly 21 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Limiting customers

So far, no Las Vegas resorts have indicated that they want to open select venues to only vaccinated guests.

A spokesman for MGM Resorts International said the company does not plan to restrict event access to only vaccinated guests. Spokespeople for Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Boyd Gaming Corp. did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for Red Rock Resorts declined to comment. A spokesman for Wynn Resorts Ltd. said the company has not taken a position on vaccine passports, and did not respond to questions on whether the company would require vaccinations at any of its properties, events or venues.

While this exclusivity would dismiss certain customers, it could allow operators to eventually ease back on health restrictions such as mask requirements and social distancing, according to Brian Labus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at UNLV.

“The whole idea is based on the fact that private businesses in different places may want to require that people are vaccinated, and this would give a standard way to verify that that was the case,” Labus said. “The (CDC) allows you to do a lot more when everyone is vaccinated. So limiting entrance to vaccinated people really gives them more options on ways to operate.”

CDC guidance has recently been updated to say fully vaccinated Americans can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without masks.

Labus added that private businesses in Las Vegas could use a passport system to speed up the reopening of certain events or venues.

“There are still certain things that we’re not really doing,” he said, pointing to attractions like nightclubs and brothels. “If we can allow them to occur with a vaccine passport, then it may allow us to reopen the doors sooner rather than wait until we have a larger portion of the population vaccinated.”

Challenges ahead

Experts are anticipating pushback to the rollout of these credential systems, especially if they do limit access to vaccinated guests.

UNLV assistant professor of hospitality Amanda Belarmino said the use of these systems could be “problematic” for Las Vegas and its road to recovery.

“There will be segments of the population who will not be in favor of using the vaccine passport whether or not they are vaccinated, and requiring them to do so would reduce the number of potential visitors,” she said. “We might get to a point where people are traveling with a forged vaccine passport that would reduce their effectiveness. At this point, anything that could create more barriers to travel will likely hamper our recovery.”

Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow in UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, believes that a passport system in Nevada would be successful only if it tracked COVID-19 tests as well as vaccinations.

“It’s very difficult in a state like Nevada, which is in a place of frontier spirit as all of the Mountain West states are, to put down such hard and fast rules,” he said. “The balance between public safety and maintaining some conceptual idea of individual choice is a very, very difficult balance.”

Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association — the voice of the state’s gaming and resort industry — said the group is “monitoring this issue” of vaccine passports, especially the technology’s ability to protect consumers’ health data and prevent against fraud.

“Visitors should feel confident in visiting Nevada’s resorts given the extraordinary steps the industry has taken to create a secure environment, and the fact that resort frontline workers are being vaccinated,” Valentine said in an emailed statement. “As a highly regulated industry, our members have implemented strong mitigation measures in compliance with the state’s health and safety regulations and directives and are inspected daily by multiple regulatory agencies.”

Boosting travel confidence

There are more than 30 types of digital health credentials so far, including a state-run digital initiative. New York’s Excelsior Pass will be accepted at major entertainment venues like Madison Square Garden and the Times Union Center in Albany, and can show New Yorkers’ proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

The state of Nevada does not have a passport system in place, but it’s not off the table. Nevada COVID-19 response director Caleb Cage said Monday that Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office continues to explore ways to reopen the economy safely.

“One of our goals is to make sure that Nevada remains a destination of choice,” he said. “We’re working on making sure that we have the infrastructure in place to do that, and working with our private sector partners in order to do that as well.”

The U.S. Travel Association is pushing for federal standards among all of the digital health credentials being used to validate COVID-19 test results and vaccinations. Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy Tori Emerson Barnes said the group believes these systems could be beneficial, as long as they avoid becoming a requirement, can operate across local, state and federal jurisdictions and keep users’ private personal information safe.

“Developing federal standards for these will help to expand the number of businesses that can easily use testing and vaccine practices to safely reopen,” she said. “Without federal leadership, you end up with this patchwork approach and that’s difficult to navigate for businesses.”

Various surveys show that vaccine passports could boost travelers’ confidence.

A March survey from travel organizing app TripIt among 3,200 American users found the idea of a digital health passport appealed to 81 percent of travelers. Another survey from travel and lifestyle media platform The Points Guy released earlier this month found nearly half of surveyed potential travelers would be more likely to travel to a destination that requires proof of the COVID-19 vaccine, based on responses online from more than 2,400 adults.

“For many Americans, COVID-19 vaccines are the key to restarting travel,” Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at The Points Guy, said in a March 10 press release. “Destinations that are requiring proof of vaccination, and travel providers that have a similar requirement, seem to be giving potential travelers a stronger sense of safety, which will make many people feel more confident about booking future travel.”

Barnes said that boosting traveler confidence is key to bringing back the travel industry.

“Right now, we’re looking at a five-year time for the recovery of the (travel) industry. The more comfortable that people are with getting back out there, we can shorten that recovery,” she said. “Anything we can do to help build that confidence, get the international and business meeting sectors in our industry back up and running, the better it will be.”

Bringing back flights

Travelers from a number of countries are still prohibited from entering the U.S., and all inbound international travelers are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or documentation of recovery.

“Opening up that international (travel) will make it easier to achieve those (faster recovery) timelines if there is a way to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got my vaccine, or I’ve got a negative COVID test, I can fly internationally,’” Barnes said. “I think we’ll start to see business pick back up in Las Vegas if we can get this timeline and these COVID health credentials in place, it’ll be able to allow for a greater movement and greater confidence in that movement among the traveler.”

The U.S. Travel Association is urging the Biden administration to commit to a plan for reopening the country to inbound international visitation by May 1. Travel’s total economic output in the U.S. fell by more than $1 trillion last year, and the country lost 5.6 million travel-supported jobs.

“We think that if we can bring back international travel demand that could be as many as 1.1 million American jobs that could be restored and $262 billion in export spending,” Barnes said. “And so the opportunities if we have these types of standard practices in place and can really help to get people more confident and comfortable in traveling, that’s going to be great not only for the U.S. but for Las Vegas.”

As for domestic flights, a spokeswoman from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said the group does not believe a health passport should be required to travel domestically. Rather, it “highly encourages” that people get vaccinated. There are currently no federal mandates that require COVID-19 testing for domestic flights.

“The right public health measures and protections, including availability of the vaccine and the commitment by the destination to be ‘Vegas Smart,’ are now in place to effectively reduce the risk of the virus and allow for safe domestic travel,” spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft said.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Sheldon Adelson, the late chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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