Georgia governor bans state government from requiring ‘vaccine passports’

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Tuesday that bans the state government from requiring proof of vaccination against the coronavirus, joining other Republican-led states in restricting the use of so-called “vaccine passports.”

“While I continue to urge all Georgians to get vaccinated so we continue our momentum of putting the Covid-19 pandemic in the rearview, vaccination is a personal decision between each citizen and a medical professional — not the state government,” Kemp said in a statement.

The governor’s order applies to state agencies, state service providers and state properties. It also forbids officials from requiring proof of vaccination to travel to Georgia, and it states that official immunization records cannot be shared to create a vaccine passport program.

The order doesn’t extend to private businesses or organizations, which could rely on digital passes to make it easier for people to show they’ve been inoculated in order to travel, attend events or take part in other activities.

But the rules do include k-12 public schools and Georgia’s higher education system, along with state correctional facilities, Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said. That means that no local school board or public university can require vaccinations for students or staffers.

While Emory University and other large private universities have mandated students get the coronavirus vaccine, students and employees at public institutions are only “strongly encouraged” to get inoculated.

‘Kemp knows better’

Kemp’s order is just the latest in a series of moves aimed at shoring up the conservative base ahead of a tough reelection bid. The first-term Republican in recent weeks signed into law an overhaul of elections that included new voting restrictions, condemned “critical race theory” and toured a section of the U.S. border with Mexico.

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna Democrat, said the decision went beyond a “publicity stunt” and could embolden more anti-vaccine activists.

“This is a dangerous stance for the Kemp administration to take,” she said, adding: “Kemp knows better — but he’s chosen to not do better.”

The idea of vaccine passports has fast become a charged political debate, with Republican officials and lawmakers scrambling to block government officials from requiring them.

The Biden administration has said it won’t require Americans to carry a credential, and that there won’t be a federal vaccination database or a federal mandate requiring citizens to obtain proof of vaccination.

But some businesses and schools are moving forward with their plans. Some universities have said they’ll require students to prove they’ve been inoculated in the fall, and a handful of sports teams have opened special sections in their arenas and stadiums for the vaccinated.

In response, several Republican-led states have scrambled to restrict the passports. The most recent is Alabama, where Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law that prohibited any government entity from issuing vaccine passports and blocked businesses from requiring the documentation.

Kemp’s order does provide a little wiggle room to allow state agencies to have different rules for employees based on vaccination status. But it requires them to take the employees’ word based on an honor-code system rather than show concrete proof of vaccination.