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New York launches the nation's first vaccine passports

Starting April 2, smaller arts, entertainment and event venues can start using it.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

A new type of passport is launching in New York and it's not the kind that gets you into other countries—it gets vaccinated folks into businesses and events.

The Excelsior Pass app, which launched Friday, shares vaccination and negative test results with art and entertainment venues and businesses (including major stadiums and arenas, wedding receptions and catered events above the social gathering limit) by using a QR code that these places scan.

Already, this app was tested during the Brooklyn Nets game at Barclays Center on February 27 and during the New York Rangers game on March 2 at Madison Square Garden.

It is the first of its kind to be used in the U.S., so New Yorkers are its proverbial guinea pigs right now. So before you go and download the app, here's what you'll need to know:

How do I get a vaccine passport?

Head to the state's Excelsior Pass website to see if you qualify for a pass, then download the Excelsior Pass Wallet app for Android here and for iOS here.
The state will ask for your name, date of birth, zip code, and the date of your last vaccine, the type, or the last negative test you had. 

How do I qualify for the Excelsior Pass?

  • if you have not tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 10 days;
  • if you have been fully vaccinated in the State of New York and it has been 14 days or longer since your final shot, or
  • you had a negative result from a PCR test in New York in the last 3 days, or
  • You had an antigen test administered in the State of New York in the last six hours and the result was negative.

How does the vaccine passport work?

Once you download the app, a QR code will pop up after you give your information. The app is linked to testing data from a number of pre-approved testing companies.

Venues and businesses can scan your QR code before they allow you to enter. You also be asked to show a photo ID (with your birthday and name) along with your pass.

Do I still have to wear a mask if I use the vaccine passport?

Yes. Once you enter, you will still be asked to follow health guidelines, including social distancing, face coverings and hand-washing/sanitization procedure. There is still no proof that vaccinated people cannot spread the virus to people who have not been vaccinated. This just allows you to get into a venue or business.

How will a vaccine passport help venues and businesses?

The hope is to make reopening an easier and safer process for theaters, bars, restaurants and other businesses.

"The business community is eager to get our city's workforce back to the office, to safely re-open entertainment venues and restaurants, and much more," Kathryn Wylde, President & CEO, Partnership for New York City, said. "The Excelsior Pass is an exciting new tool that will accelerate our state's economic recovery. It is evidence of New York's forward-thinking approach to restoring jobs and moving beyond the pandemic."

"Excelsior Pass is a great example of the kind of innovative, forward-looking thinking that the tourism industry needs to safely get back to work as we emerge from the COVID crisis, Mark Dorr, the president of the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association, said. "This first-of-its-kind state app will make it easier for our members to safely hold events under the state guidance and we look forward to putting it to use for our members and guests."

It is worth stating again that there is no proof that vaccinated people cannot still spread the virus, however.

Will I have to use the Excelsior Pass in the future?

No, this is voluntary, however, businesses and venues may still require some form of proof of vaccination or testing. You'll likely be able to show that in paper form or on another app.

Side note: The pass can be printed from the website to reduce any barriers to usage.

Excelsior vaccine passport
Photograph: Courtesy Governor Andrew Cuomo's Office

What about my privacy?

The app will ask for the following:

Your name, your date of birth, your zip Code, your vaccination location or COVID-19 test location (if applicable), your vaccination type or COVID-19 test type; and your vaccination date or COVID-19 test date (if applicable).

Before you supply this information, you will have to agree to an "Authorization to Disclose."

Where does your information go? The state says an individual's data is kept secure and confidential at all times, but that the app may be hosted by third parties working with New York State. These third parties are expected to limit their use of the information solely to the purpose of the app. Any information you provide to the app would be used for follow-up communications and contact tracing.

The app is built on IBM's Digital Health Pass solution, which uses "secure verification" of your COVID-19 status without needing to share medical or personal information

"Secure technologies, like blockchain and encryption, are woven throughout Excelsior Pass to help protect the data, making it verifiable and trusted," the state says. "No private health data is stored or tracked within the apps."

According to one expert that Gothamist/WNYC interviewed, the app's privacy policy doesn't state how the data is tracked or kept safe.

But one expert contends that the platform's privacy policy fails to outline how secure the app really is.

Essentially, there are no guarantees in the terms of service that say whether the information won't be accessed by police departments or the Immigration or Customs Enforcement agency, said Albert Fox Cahn, an attorney and the founder of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an advocacy group ensuring privacy rights are upheld.

"I have more detailed technical documentation about the privacy impact of nearly every app on my phone than I do for this health pass," he told them. "IBM and the governor are using lots of buzzwords, but they're not explaining their cryptographic model. They're not explaining the security, implementation. And on top of it, the pass itself is incredibly revealing, disclosing not only people's health status, and name but their date of birth."

When can I start using it?

Many venues have announced they will begin using the app in the coming weeks, including Madison Square Garden and the Times Union Center in Albany, and beginning April 2, Excelsior Pass will expand to smaller arts, entertainment and event venues. 

"New Yorkers have proven they can follow public health guidance to beat back COVID, and the innovative Excelsior Pass is another tool in our new toolbox to fight the virus while allowing more sectors of the economy to reopen safely and keeping personal information secure," Governor Andrew Cuomo said. "The question of 'public health or the economy' has always been a false choice — the answer must be both. As more New Yorkers get vaccinated each day and as key public health metrics continue to regularly reach their lowest rates in months, the first-in-the-nation Excelsior Pass heralds the next step in our thoughtful, science-based reopening."

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