In reality, we all are on the honor system. As businesses relax mask requirements for customers and employees, expecting diligent verification of vaccinated status is unrealistic.
Widespread distribution of vaccines against COVID-19 has been effective in stemming the tide of the disease. In Washington, about 3.4 million people have been fully vaccinated, placing the state among the top 12 in vaccines per capita.
Those numbers are reaching a plateau, however, both in Washington and other states. Most people who desire a vaccine have been able to receive one, leading to the closing of state-run mass vaccination sites, an oversupply of vaccines and the creation of a state lottery as an incentive for the reluctant to be vaccinated.
As a reminder: All indications are that the vaccines approved for emergency use against COVID-19 are safe. All vaccines — whether for coronavirus or anything else — carry inherent risks. But with an estimated 139 million Americans fully vaccinated, there have not been reports of widespread adverse reactions.
That, in many places, has turned the discussion to questions about, well, questions.
In Washington, Republican legislators are decrying a directive from the state Labor & Industries department to track the vaccination status of employees. “It certainly shouldn’t have any bearing on whether or not an employee can do their job safely, especially in industries where social distancing is already the norm,” Clark County legislators wrote in an opinion piece for The Columbian.
Labor & Industries says that businesses may allow employees to be maskless if it is confirmed that they have been vaccinated. That seems logical in order for an employer to protect employees; if a worker lies about their status, an employer does not confirm, and other employees contract the disease, the employer can face legal liability in addition to losing workers for an extended period.
In addition, companies where workers have direct contact with the public should be diligent about confirming vaccinated status before employees eschew masks. Strides have been made against COVID-19, but the virus remains a threat; more than 4,000 new cases were confirmed in Washington during the first five days of June.
There is room for debate regarding the Labor & Industries guidelines. The directive, indeed, is an extra burden for companies, and reality suggests that not all employers will comply. A rule is only as good as its enforcement, and it is unrealistic to expect enforcement on all 200,000 Washington employers.
That is a different argument from one that has gained increasing traction as the nation combats coronavirus. It has become the argument du jour for conservatives to claim that asking about somebody’s vaccination status is illegal — whether as a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, or a violation of constitutional rights.
Such allegations are patently false. As a Georgetown University law professor told USA Today: “Non-health care businesses are not subject to HIPAA.” And as The Washington Post reported: “Under federal laws, there are very few, if any, situations in which businesses, airlines, employers, schools and even those covered by HIPAA are prohibited from asking you to share your vaccination status or show your vaccine record card, experts said.”
Private businesses may ask you anything, and you may choose whether or not to answer. Whether an employer or a citizen, we all are on the honor system regarding vaccination status. And honor dictates that we act responsibly.