Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott floats idea of regional vaccine passport to Big Eight counties

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott pitched the idea of a regional vaccine passport to county executives from Maryland’s largest jurisdictions Wednesday in spite of what he said are his own misgivings about the fairness of such a program.

In a virtual meeting with the Big Eight — leaders from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — Scott, a Democrat, said he floated the idea of the counties joining the city in a proposal to require a so-called passport — a digital certification that confirms a person’s inoculation against the coronavirus — to enter certain venues.


The county leaders reached no consensus on the topic but were open to listening, Scott said Wednesday night. So far, the public response has been mixed, even among Scott’s most frequent allies.

Sean Naron, spokesman for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said vaccine passports are “not something the county is currently considering at this time.”


Neither Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman nor Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, both Democrats, responded to questions about the vaccine passport proposal.

Montgomery County is the only other Maryland jurisdiction publicly pushing for vaccine passports. There, County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration has proposed requiring vaccinations for indoor bars, restaurants, coffee shops, museums, gyms and concert venues. Officials are slated to consider the proposal later this month.

To date, Scott has spoken about the proposed vaccine passport only in general terms. Last month, he announced that he was directing city Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa to explore the idea. During a news conference Wednesday, he said the commissioner continues to confer with city business leaders about the idea.

In an interview Wednesday with The Baltimore Sun, Scott said he is not entirely committed to the plan. There are serious concerns about equity, he said. Even though the city has done targeted outreach to get Black residents vaccinated, fewer are, he said.

“We know that inequity is there. There are already preexisting inequities in the city,” he said. “I don’t want this to be a thing where we’re blocking our Black people from access to things. That’s a big, big thing for me. … How can they show me how that won’t be the case?”

Scott said a regional approach to a passport policy would be beneficial. People move between the city and surrounding counties on a daily basis, and a consistent policy would help with enforcement, he said. But it’s not a deal-breaker if other jurisdictions don’t sign on.

“I’m not afraid to go it alone,” he said. “In a perfect world, do I think that will be something we see with other folks? Yes. But throughout COVID, I’ve proven that I’m not afraid to go alone, or to go it alone with Marc [Elrich of Montgomery County] and Angela [Alsobrooks of Prince George’s County.]”

If Baltimore moves forward with instituting a passport, it would join a growing group of cities across the country that have implemented similar policies, including New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco. In the region, Washington recently approved a requirement taking effect Jan. 15 that mandates proof of at least one dose of a COVID vaccine to enter restaurants, bars and gyms. A second dose will be required starting Feb. 15.


Montgomery County’s proposal, which still must be approved by the Montgomery County Council, would apply to anyone 12 or older. Exclusions would be included for houses of worship, grocery stores, pharmacies, schools and day care facilities.

Some Baltimore businesses and venues, including The Lyric and the Hippodrome Theatre, have chosen on their own to require proof of vaccination.

Scott said he’s considering policies that mirror those in D.C. or New York City.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, said she was surprised Baltimore has not already implemented an indoor vaccine requirement — her preferred terminology for a vaccine passport. The city has been a champion for public health throughout the pandemic, Wen said.

Under Scott’s leadership, the city has maintained an indoor masking requirement since before the current surge in cases.

Wen has advocated for vaccine passports since early in the pandemic, arguing such a policy is akin to a health screening before entering a business or venue. People who are vaccinated are less likely to contract COVID-19 and therefore less likely to spread it to others, she said.


Wen said the benefits still outweigh the negatives even during the recent surge of the omicron variant, which has proved far more contagious than previous strains.

“What is the goal here? We need to put our emphasis on the short term as well as the long term,” Wen said. “The short term when it comes to curbing omicron, [a vaccine passport] won’t stop the surge. That’s not why you’re doing it. You’re doing it to increase vaccinations, which will reduce the strain on the health care system in the medium term.”

Long term, more vaccinations means an end to the pandemic, Wen said.

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“It’s not to stop the current surge of omicron,” she said.

In Baltimore, like other places, vaccine passports are likely to face opposition from business owners. Baltimore was sued earlier in the pandemic by the Restaurant Association of Maryland over the city’s then ban on in-person dining. A judge eventually denied the group’s request to overturn the ban. Scott’s administration also faced a lawsuit from city strip club owners over a ban on adult entertainment during the pandemic. Scott lifted the ban days after the suit was filed.

Wen said business owners in other cities with vaccine passports have spoken of the benefits, however. Some patrons may feel more comfortable knowing the vaccination status of the people sitting at the tables around them, she said.


“Yes, there may be some people who might prefer to go to county restaurants if there is a vaccine mandate in place in the city,” Wen said. “But there will be many customers who would be far more likely to go to city restaurants if there is a vaccine requirement in place.”

Scott said Dzirasa has begun the process of speaking to business owners and he has spoken to some personally to get their perspectives on the passport idea.

“There’s always backlash to whatever you do,” the mayor said. “What folks on every side of an idea can be assured is that I’m going to think everything through.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.

For the record

This story has been corrected to reflect that Carroll County did not participate in the meeting. The Sun regrets the error.