You Staying at Home Is the Future Unvaccinated-Punishers Want

Complying with the layers of COVID-19 restrictions on travel and human interaction is exhausting even for the vaccinated.


When it's been a good long while, you forget one of the primary benefits of travel: seeing and experiencing wholly different approaches to the same human problems we contend with back home. For my 6-year-old in France the first half of August, that meant mostly one thing: Kids of elementary school age there almost never wear masks.

"Can we stay in France until coronavirus is over?" she asked, more than once.

To be sure, that's not the French COVID-19 policy making international headlines this summer. In July, President Emmanuel Macron announced that everyone in the country as of August 9 must show a government-issued Pass Sanitaire—proof of either vaccination, a negative test within the past 72 hours, or prior recovery from an infection—before doing most anything in an indoor public space. Cities have been wracked with protests every weekend since; vaccinations have also shot upward.

Vaccine passports have become an increasingly popular policy response to the more infectious delta variant of COVID-19. Italy has required a "Green Pass" since August 6 (as a nakedly biased New York Times subhed put it, "While such measures have prompted protests in France and divided Americans, Italians are enjoying a season of rationality under Prime Minister Mario Draghi").

Papers-please requirements went into effect Monday in New Orleans and New York City; San Francisco will join them Friday. California announced yesterday that any public event larger than 1,000 attendees will need to check vax status as of September 20.

Most ominously of all, for those who value freedom of movement over government's ability to constrain it, not only has President Joe Biden been reportedly considering a vaccination-check for domestic air travel, he will soon have a demonstration project to consider north of the border, where Canada last week announced that proof will be required for all air, train, and boat passengers beginning this fall.

As The Washington Post put it in a headline this week, "Vaccine mandates are mounting—and that's likely to affect your next trip."

That is, if you decide to take it.

The net sum of governmental restrictions and requirements on travel adds layer upon layer of time, cost, and anxiety. And that's for those of us who got our vaccinations as quickly as legally possible. Even before you leave your country, there's the potentially trip-killing hassle of either obtaining or renewing a passport, which has wreaked expensive havoc on thousands of Americans. Then the actual COVID rules kick in.

Imagine a federal government initiating and executing a national IT job and related app affecting tens of millions in a couple of months. Obamacare exchanges, anyone? Foreign visitors to France were told (usually by the media) that they should just go to a nearby pharmacy, show a relevant vax card, and they'd be given something temporary to show whoever asked. The pharmacists replied, er, non, we don't have that capability; our database system is set up so we'd have to create some kind of ghost in-country vaccination record, and, well, bonne chance.

If you happen to have a French spouse handy (recommended), he/she can then navigate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, download and fill out the various forms, then email 'em back—not too heavy a file, mind you, or else it will bounce back, and you'll have to start all over again. There is no automatic response or tracking number generated, so you'll have to cross your fingers. In our case, the Pass Sanitaire showed up right on time—for our arrival back in New York.

Since it was the first week of the requirement, venues tended to just wave us through after a flash of the passport and the vax card. But there was a subtler side effect on me, as well—I spent much less of my discretionary walk-around time poking my nose into places that might card me. At some point, depending on varying individual tolerance, the hassles both major and minor stack up high enough that you orient your activity around avoiding any potential friction.

The United States still requires a negative PCR test—regardless of your vaccination status—within 72 hours of your flight back home. Since the French government is openly embracing the Cass Sunstein-esque ethos of nudging people into desired behaviors, those tests will cost you 49 euros per, so place that on the stack. (If you are inclined toward downward-spiral fantasia or just negative-scenario planning, you may choose to spend the 24 hours or so after that test imagining what you'll do if everyone's negative except the 6-year-old.)

The addition of the COVID checkpoints makes the airport gauntlet on international flights seem like that hippie-punching scene from Airplane!, only considerably less fun. We showed up at Charles de Gaulle three hours before our flight, and by the time we reached the gate, the plane was already boarding. As the headline on Liz Wolfe's piece two months ago aptly put it, "International Travel Is Partially Back, but It's Worse Than Before."

I know, I know, First World problems, amirite? Except this is the future many American politicians, public health officials, and journalists seem to want, right here at home.

"A no-fly list for unvaccinated adults is an obvious step that the federal government should take," wrote former Obama administration Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Intergovernmental Affairs Juliette Kayyem in The Atlantic this month. "We have to move from the…carrots of luring people, talking to them about the science, giving them extra pay lottery systems," Kayyem further explained on PBS, "to a system of sticks where there will be burdens, privileges will be denied."

Few people will ever go broke overestimating the desire among Americans to inflict punishment on their perceived political enemies. But not only will blue-state vax requirements end up disproportionately impacting Democratic-voting minority populations, they will also discourage basic human activity among populations that have already long since been nudged into vaccination.

When we arrived at the passport line at JFK—an irritating and nerve-wracking experience in the best of times—security agents kept yelling to the trudging masses how they should just download the passport app and go to that shorter line over there. (This after having been sternly reminded by the airline crew that using mobile phones in line is strictly prohibited.) Panicked passengers, fatigued from the seven-hour flight and prior airport gauntlet, started fumbling with their phones, asking nervously about whether they'd be allowed in the country. I probably staved off more than one cardiac emergency (beginning with my own) by loudly asking one of the guards, "THIS IS NOT MANDATORY, CORRECT?"

Being somewhere is great, jumping through government hoops to get there is the opposite. Especially when it's in the stated service of protecting people like me—or even my unvaccinated 6-year-old, who is still unlikely to catch, and vanishingly unlikely to suffer from, the delta variant of COVID. You want to impose tight vaccination/testing protocols on school staff and especially those in daily contact with at-risk populations? I'm all ears. Create a bifurcated world where carrying vax status is a must and the noncompliant are barred from whole swaths of physical territory, even though I don't fear them in the slightest? I don't plan on entering those spaces.

You've seen the meme about my fall plans versus the delta variant? It's amusing, as far these things go, but for me the versus is acutely missing the phrase government's response to. I am aching to visit my family in California, but Lord only knows what kind of travel and quarantining restrictions and currently unimagined hassles will be added to the stack once delta comes heading north and west from the peak areas down south.

At some point the unhappy conclusion begins to coalesce. Government nudgers don't just want to punish politically icky refuseniks, they'd be happy if I stayed home from the bar or airport terminal, too. And they will continue calling the shots, if we continue letting them.