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Excelsior vaccine passport
Photograph: Courtesy Governor Cuomo's Office

Everything you need to know about New York's Vaccine Passport

Your questions about the Excelsior Pass and the NYC Covid Safe App answered.

Written by
André Wheeler
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In response to a swelling surge of confirmed Covid-19 cases — largely composed of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals — Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that proof of vaccination (at least one dose) will be required for a large swath of activities in the city.

Beginning August 16, New York will become one of the first cities in the U.S. to require proof of full vaccination from the employees and patrons of restaurants, gyms, and indoor entertainment venues such as movie theaters and concerts. However, in a slightly confusing move, City Hall stated enforcement of the order will not actually begin until September 13, in order to give businesses a grace period to smooth out practicalities. 

What does all of this mean for residents and tourists?

In the wake of the announcement, a lot of focus and debate has turned to two digital vaccine passports: the COVID Safe App (released by New York City) and the Excelsior Pass (released by New York state). Numerous questions have arisen around the unprecedented Covid-19 prevention effort, especially from New Yorkers unsure about how greatly it will affect day-to-day life in a city that, only a few weeks ago, largely abandoned masks requirements and capacity limits: Will vaccinated customers also be required to wear masks? How long do vaccine passports last? What are the privacy and safety rules of each app? Here, we break down everything we know so far about the COVID Safe App, the Excelsior Pass, and which app might be the best pick. 

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What is the Excelsior Pass?

The Excelsior Pass arrived earlier this year, becoming the first government-issued vaccine passport in the country. Once proof of vaccination is uploaded, the app basically functions as a QR code that you can present at establishments. You don’t have to be a New York resident to use the app, but you must have received your vaccination within the state, or be a New Yorker who received one out of state. The information required from users is likely no different from what’s required to get an email account or shop online these days: name, last name, zip code, date of birth, and phone number. You can also store negative Covid-19 test results on the app that are valid for a fixed period ranging from six hours to three days, depending on the type of test. Anyone who has received a Covid vaccine or negative test result in New York state is eligible to use the app, including children under 18. As of early July, the pass had over two million downloads — representing just 10% of total vaccinations in New York state. 

Why is the Excelsior Pass so controversial?

As you can see, the Excelsior Pass provides a basic experience, but the conversation around the app has been anything but. Tech giant IBM, which developed Excelsior for the state government, promises that all data is made private and secure using blockchain and encryption technologies. But IBM has been stingy on the exact details of how these technologies work, The Intercept reported. Additionally, an MIT Technology Review article pointed out that businesses use a separate app to scan QR codes, and there is the possibility users’ locations could be tracked by those scanners. 

Shortly after the release of Excelsior, more than a dozen states expressly banned the creation and/or enforcement of vaccine passports, including Florida, Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and others. Excelsior undoubtedly provides a streamlined, convenient way to provide proof of vaccination. And, so far, has not had any major hiccups or controversies. Despite this, there remains a large fear and hesitancy among conservatives and online privacy experts around large government involvement in vaccine passports. Enter: the New York Covid Safe App. 

What is the New York COVID Safe App?

If the Excelsior App is a basic experience, the COVID Safe App is a decidedly unsophisticated, bare-bones app. The technology leans more towards photo storage — users take a picture of their vaccine card, but the app does not confirm if the vaccine card is valid. The simplicity of the technology is a fault: users have been able to get away with uploading everything from a bottle of lotion to a picture of Mickey Mouse as their vaccination card. 

Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, clarified businesses are expected to confirm vaccine photos stored on the app, telling Gothamist, "The NYC COVID Safe App was designed with privacy at the top of mind, and allows someone to digitally store their CDC card and identification. Someone checking vaccination cards at the door to a restaurant or venue would see that those examples are not proper vaccine cards and act accordingly."

COVID Safe App is likely to appeal to those with privacy concerns as no information is stored on databases. Additionally, the COVID Safe App can be used by people who received their vaccination outside of New York state. This is crucial considering a large portion of NYC’s population consists of transplants who may have traveled back home during the pandemic and tourists. 

OK… so how are the Covid Safe App and the Excelsior Pass different?

The Covid Safe App can be used by anyone who has received a Covid-19 vaccination approved by the W.H.O., while the Excelsior Pass can only be used by someone who has received a vaccination within New York state, or New Yorkers vaccinated out of state. Additionally, the Covid Safe App requires less personal information and does not store users' data. On the flip side, the Excelsior Pass is a significantly more user-friendly and elegant app to use.  

How long will the mandate remain in effect? 

Mayor Bill de Blasio did not mention how long the new mandate will last, but it is part of several efforts to increase the vaccination rate in New York, including a $100 cash incentive for vaccinations and vaccination requirements for various public workers.  

What activities can I enjoy if I am unvaccinated/can not provide proof of vaccination?

Announcing the mandate, the mayor’s office specifically focused on restaurants, gyms, and indoor concerts and performances. However, it is possible the restrictions could be broader and include more high-traffic spaces once officially enacted. Additionally, businesses and institutions still have room to impose their own mask requirements in accordance with recent CDC guidelines. 

All Broadway theaters will also require audience members to show proof of vaccination and wear their masks

What if I am an international tourist? 

The rules apply to everyone in New York City, resident or not. The NYC COVID Safe App can be used for any vaccination approved by the W.H.O. — including AstraZenca/Oxford. 

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