Opinion: In post-pandemic NJ, common sense will count more than pundits, pols

Carl Golden | April 23, 2021 | Opinion
Arguments about ‘vaccination passports,’ personal freedom may not last long in a society and marketplace learning to live the ‘new normal’
Carl Golden

As COVID-19 slowly loosens its lethal grip on New Jersey, the focus of attention turns to life in a post-pandemic environment and whether the dramatic changes of the past 14 months will continue in some form or disappear in a surge toward normalcy.

The metrics by which the impact of the virus is measured — infections, hospitalizations and fatalities — are trending in a favorable direction amid cautious optimism. The hope is that with the approach of warmer weather and the steady increase in vaccinations, the state will emerge battered and saddened but on the cusp of a resumption of what daily life was like before March 2020.

Schools will welcome all students back to full-time classroom instruction in September; restaurants will once again schedule reservations and deal with lines; theaters and sports venues will welcome capacity crowds; and birthday observances, weddings, family reunions and just hanging out will be celebratory events.

There will be reminders, though — many people will continue to wear masks and the specter of nearly 900,000 infected and more than 25,000 dead will be a constant presence.

Vaccination certificates a flashpoint

As hope glimmers on the horizon, a debate is gaining strength over whether those millions who’ve been inoculated should be required to possess a document attesting to it and to produce it as a prerequisite for admittance to venues, commercial establishments or public facilities that routinely host or serve large gatherings.

The so-called vaccination certificate has become a flashpoint in a dispute between those who consider them an added layer of protection against a virus resurgence (similar to masks and social distancing) and those who believe they are an unwarranted overreach by government, an invasion of privacy dangerously open to abuse.  

The Biden administration has asserted it has no plan for a national certificate mandate, and Gov. Phil Murphy has sidestepped the issue by declaring he’ll be guided by the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Providing certificates or other documentation as evidence of vaccination against highly communicable diseases is hardly a groundbreaking step.

For decades, New Jersey’s public schools have required records of vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella chickenpox, hepatitis B and meningococcal as a condition of enrollment. Periodic booster shots are mandated as well. As students move through grade levels, all records are preserved and annual reports are submitted to the state and local health departments.

They’re an accepted part of life, merely another instance of following a government mandate — one neither overly inconvenient nor annoyingly bothersome — but designed to protect children from contracting potentially deadly diseases from their classmates and carrying them home to siblings or parents.      

The regulations are explicit: Without a religious or medical exemption, enrollment shall be denied to students who can’t show proof of vaccinations.

Clearly, there exists a qualitative difference between ensuring the well-being of a child and a government demand for the same from millions of adults who merely wish to attend a movie theater or a baseball game or spend a Saturday afternoon browsing a supermarket.

Those wary of intrusions on personal privacy argue that the certificates are a threat to personal freedoms, will expose private health data and are of dubious constitutionality. Legislation has been introduced to prohibit state or local governments from mandating private business enterprises from requiring customers to produce proof of vaccination.  

The 75-year-old grandfather in the high-risk category, though (80% of the state’s deaths were individuals 65 and older) will feel at ease knowing the younger man sitting next to him in the theater or at the stadium isn’t hosting the virus.

It is highly likely that the issue will play out in the coming months with no definitive resolution. In other words, neither mandate nor prohibition will be imposed, leaving the decision in the hands of business proprietors and stadium, arena or theater owners.

There is still no cure for the virus and its mutations will continue to pose new challenges to the state’s public health system and the individuals who administer it.

It is likely that the millions who’ve been vaccinated thus far will be lining up once again in six months to receive booster protection.

Pandemic politics

It was inevitable that a public health crisis the likes of which hadn’t been experienced in a century would work its way into the state’s politics.

Criticism was directed at Murphy over his largely unilateral approach (declaring public health emergencies each month) and his decisions to lock down virtually all business activity, impose severe restrictions that effectively confined millions to their homes and order classrooms emptied.  

The jolt to the economy and the soaring unemployment rate were devastating. Murphy stood fast and enjoyed majority support for his insistence that protecting the public was his sole motivation and, despite the upheaval, never wavered from his belief that the disease would be conquered.

The issue will be subjected to overheated campaign rhetoric, particularly at the gubernatorial level where Murphy’s record will be assailed as needlessly punitive and costly and defended as the kind of strong leadership that brought the state through an unprecedented crisis.

New Jerseyans, a notoriously cranky and independent lot, will decide on their own whether to patronize establishments with certificate policies — pro or con — and leave the free marketplace as the ultimate decider of their patrons’ behavior.

It may turn out to be that rarest of political outcomes, the one in which the competing factions can each say, “I told you so.”