Gov. Abbott bans government-mandated vaccine passport in Texas

AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Tuesday morning prohibiting state agencies or political subdivisions in Texas from creating a "vaccine passport" requirement.

Conversation has grown around vaccine passports recently as an option that can be used for travel or even eating out.

They are typically described as an app with a code that verifies if someone has been vaccinated or recently tested negative for COVID-19. They're already in use in Israel and in development in parts of Europe.

But Abbott shut that down as an option in the Lone Star State with Executive Order No. GA - 35, which is also prohibiting "organizations receiving public funds from requiring consumers to provide documentation of vaccine status in order to receive any service or enter any place."

"Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives," said Abbott. "That is why I have issued an executive order that prohibits government-mandated vaccine passports in Texas. We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health - and we will do so without treading on Texans' personal freedoms."

The order goes beyond the vaccine passport.

"He's suspended two laws on the books in the health safety and codes and one of those allows for mandatory vaccinations in certain crisis. The other law allows the government to order someone to disclose whether or not theyve been immunized," said Steve Schellist, a legal expert.

While this applies to Texas, if you're planning to travel, you need to check the requirements of your destination, according to River Oaks Travel.

"You would need to be very careful in the research of what a particular country requires to enter," explained Daria Westerfield with River Oaks Travel. "It can be a COVID test, some require to enter with (the) vaccination. So before you go, do precise research of what is required."

You can view the order in its entirety here.



Abbott's not alone in this move. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also issued an order in his state on Friday banning vaccine passports and barring businesses from requiring proof of vaccination, saying that requiring them would infringe on personal freedom and decisions.

DeSantis said he expected the Legislature to pass a similar law. His order said requiring "so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports for taking part in everyday life - such as attending a sporting event, patronizing a restaurant, or going to a movie theater - would create two classes of citizens.

As of a few days ago, GOP senators in Pennsylvania were drawing up legislation that would prohibit vaccine passports from being used to bar people from routine activities.

"We have constitutional rights and health privacy laws for a reason," said Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican. "They should not cease to exist in a time of crisis. These passports may start with COVID-19, but where will they end?"

Benninghoff said this week his concern was "using taxpayer money to generate a system that will now be, possibly, in the hands of mega-tech organizations who've already had problems with getting hacked and security issues."

A Democratic colleague, Rep. Chris Rabb of Philadelphia, sees value in vaccine passports if they are implemented carefully.

"There's a role for using technology and other means to confirm people's statuses," Rabb said. "But we do have concerns around privacy, surveillance and inequitable access."

Republican legislators in other states have also been drafting proposals to ban or limit them. A bill introduced in the Arkansas Legislature on Wednesday would prevent government officials from requiring vaccine passports for any reason, and would ban their use as a condition of "entry, travel, education, employment or services."

The sponsor, Republican state Sen. Trent Garner, called vaccine passports "just another example of the Biden administration using COVID-19 to put regulations or restrictions on everyday Americans."

President Joe Biden's administration has largely taken a hands-off approach on vaccine passports.

At a news conference this week, Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said he considered them a project for the private sector, not the government.

He said the government is considering federal guidelines to steer the process surrounding vaccine passports. Among its concerns: Not everyone who would need a passport has a smartphone; passports should be free and in multiple languages; and private health information must be protected.

"There will be organizations that want to use these. There will be organizations that don't want to use these," said Dr. Brian Anderson of Mitre, which operates federally funded research centers and is part of a coalition working to develop standards for vaccine certifications to make their use easier across vendors.

Anderson noted the Vaccination Credential Initiative is not making recommendations on how - or even if - organizations choose to use the certifications.

In Montana, GOP lawmakers this week voted along party lines to advance a pair of bills that would ban discrimination based on vaccine status or possession of an immunity passport, and to prohibit using vaccine status or passports to obtain certain benefits and services.

And a freshman Republican state lawmaker in Ohio spoke out about the concept, saying more restrictions or mandates are not the answer to every COVID-19 problem.

"Ohioans are encouraged to take the COVID-19 vaccine for the health and well-being of themselves and others," Rep. Al Cutrona said. "However, a vaccine should not be mandated or required by our government for our people to integrate back to a sense of normalcy."

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, a newly elected member who has embraced and promoted a range of far-right political positions, told her supporters on Facebook earlier this week that "something called a vaccine passport" was a form of "corporate communism" and part of a Democratic effort to control people's lives.

And a GOP lawmaker in Louisiana has teed up a bill to keep the state from including any vaccination information on the Louisiana driver's license or to make issuance of a driver's license subject to vaccine status.

In New York, a government-sponsored vaccine passport called the Excelsior Pass is being introduced. A smartphone app, it shows whether someone has been vaccinated or recently tested negative for COVID-19.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted the idea as letting an event venue usher, for example, use their own smartphone to scan a concertgoer's code.

New York officials have not released specific details about how the app will work, access someone's vaccination or testing status or protect a user's name, date of birth or the location where their code was scanned. The app's privacy policy says data will be "maintained in a secure manner" and won't be used for sales or marketing purposes or shared with a third party. But some privacy experts say the public needs more specifics to ensure its information is protected.

Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, warned the Excelsior Pass creates a new layer of surveillance without sufficient details about how it collects data or protects privacy.

"We basically only have screenshots of the user interface and not much more," Cahn said of Excelsior Pass.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Marla Carter on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Copyright © 2021 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.