GELFAND’S WORLD - A few days ago, I shared with you my experience of being asked for proof of vaccination while buying a hamburger at a McDonalds in Frankfurt, Germany.
I have to confess that I am not entirely clear on what actually transpired because the interaction occurred in at least two languages including all the requisite pointing and miming that such interactions entail. Still, I gradually became aware of new European rules regarding the showing of vaccination certificates -- the so-called "Green Pass" -- in order to ride on the train, enter a crowded theater, or even to enter the country. So now, we have our own home-cooked argument coming from none other than In-N-Out Burger.
The story has so far centered on the In-N-Out location at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Television news and the internet carried the restaurant's statement that, "We refuse to become the vaccination police." In response the city of San Francisco shut down indoor dining at the location. it is now open for take-out and drive through only.
My first response was one of irritation with In-N-Out. They came across as a typical right wing group which isn't on the side of science or necessity. After all, we have a continuing epidemic that could potentially be brought under control. By not doing their part, In-N-Out Burger could be said to be unpatriotic. They might claim that it's exactly the opposite, but if your country is under attack -- even by a microorganism -- isn't it the proper and patriotic thing to do your part in protecting your fellow citizens from pestilence and death?
But on second viewing and perhaps a little more careful reading of what In-N-Out is saying, I'm moving towards mixed emotions on the issue. That doesn't mean I agree with them -- it's just that I can see a glimmer of logic in what they are doing and saying. Part of this is that there is a legitimate sort of conservatism (so unlike the currently prevalent variety) that seeks to protect the good and useful in society against random decay. In the case of In-N-Out Burger, what are the pros and cons?
Let's start with the reason that a city or state might want to enact a vaccination requirement for those who want to participate in civic affairs. It's ultimately simple. We have ways of fighting the Covid-19 epidemic, the most effective being vaccination. The results of careful statistical studies have been overwhelming. We could have been at effective herd immunity already if only people had gone to the drugstore and gotten the shots. Not only that, but in places where people have been pretty good about getting the shots, the incidence of new cases has declined. You can get a feel for how many of us in Los Angeles County have been vaccinated and what the latest number of cases adds up to by checking the L.A. County Health website. The most recent numbers show that the hospitalization rate and death rate have dropped by more than half in just the past couple of months. For Los Angeles County residents over the age of 12, the number who have had at least one dose is just under 79%, with the number of fully vaccinated just slightly below that number at 71%.
For seniors (defined as age 65+) we find that 84% are fully vaccinated, and an impressive 93% have had at least one dose.
So, there are two conclusions to be drawn from these numbers: The first is that the disease is still with us, but the vaccinated population is (by its partial herd immunity) helping to keep the numbers down because your vaccinated neighbor is less likely to have an infectious case that he can transmit to you. The second conclusion is that the unvaccinated population is free-riding on the vaccinated population. That conclusion follows from the first conclusion.
As a society, we should have a right -- both moral and legal -- to do something about this free rider problem. It's a problem not because of its inherent immorality, but because free riding is not entirely effective as a disease preventative. Unvaccinated people are still getting the Covid-19 infection, still being hospitalized, and still dying from the disease. If they were only a risk to themselves (i.e.: if vaccination were 100% protective for the rest of us) than some of us might agree that the non-vaccinated should be free to live or die according to their own rules. But because vaccination is not 100% protective -- particularly for a substantial group of people who don't develop full immunity -- they are a potential pool of infectiousness.
As a result, our elected officials are facing a continuing epidemic, and this in spite of the undeniable fact that we have effective methods for quenching its spread. The main problem is that one-fifth of the population (and in some places more like one-half) won't allow themselves to be vaccinated. They cite reasons when asked, but their statements don't pass the test of fact or logic. What's to do?
So the authorities -- in this case the city of San Francisco -- are tightening the vice by making it more and more difficult to participate in the life of the city without getting the shot. It's obviously not perfectly effective, but it seems to be what a modern day democracy can do. We are beginning to enact such rules in various places around the U.S., just as the countries of the European Union are adopting similar rules.
That, in a nutshell, is the logic behind San Francisco demanding that restaurants enforce the vaccination requirement. I should point out that when I attended the los Angeles Opera a few weeks ago, there was a rigorous (and almost ritualistic) requirement to show my proof of vaccination and to receive the yellow wrist band that demonstrated my purity from Covid. It wasn't a major problem. It was just a momentary requirement to show proof that I was unlikely to be carrying a lethally transmissible infection into the building. The wrist band itself actually reminded me of the day-pass I got at Disneyland in a long ago decade.
So what is the counterargument for In-N-Out Burger and all the restaurants that might like to be its imitators?
In brief, it's the American propensity to want to be left alone in our private business. In-N-Out says that it doesn't want to be the Vaccine Police. That's fair enough. I wouldn't want to be the vaccine police at my neighborhood supermarket or at the airline counter. It puts you in the position of asking people for a document, knowing that some of the people you encounter will be resentful and a few will even be downright abusive. We've seen that plenty of times over the past 18 months.
But there is a counterargument to the counterargument. The fact that In-N-Out doesn't want to do the job does not mean that the job does not need to be done. All over the world, airline employees are checking proof of vaccination and proof of a recent Covid-19 test. They have to do that in order to allow you on the airplane, because those are the rules set by the various national governments that regulate which passengers can be allowed to come into their countries.
So I sympathize with In-N-Out for being put in this position. Up until now, they've done a pretty good job of running a restaurant business without being forced to become involved in somebody's political quarrel. That's the legitimate part of their argument. I don't think it is all that compelling, but logic forces me to at least admit that the argument exists. It ultimately comes down to a judgment of whether we as a society value the freedom to be left alone more than we value the desire to reduce the number of preventable deaths from Covid-19.
The part of the argument that would not be legitimate would be for this (or any other) restaurant chain to claim that Covid-19 isn't all that bad, or is a fraud, or that the vaccine doesn't work. We're getting all those fraudulent claims from the anti-vaccine people, but they have been abundantly refuted again and again.
That raises one more legitimate point. Whether they like it or not, the In-N-Out people are joining with the hard right wing and the anti-vaccine people in taking this stand. It would have been simple for the restaurant to add a vaccine check to an already-lengthy process of having you wait in line, getting your order along with the order of your companions, telling you the price, collecting your money, giving you your change, and handing you a receipt. That's before calling your number and handing you a box with your food. To the authorities, the imposition on In-N-Out is de minimis.
And by the way, managers of restaurants are already acting as police in other ways. They have to tell you not to smoke inside their premises, they prohibit various unsanitary conditions among their clients, and they have to deal with hundreds of rules, regulations, and reporting requirements when it comes to the safety of the food they serve. The fact that we don't have more salmonella outbreaks is proof that the system works pretty well (with a few notable exceptions every now and then), and I don't hear a lot of people complaining about restaurants and grocery stores being the food safety police. It's what comes with the territory.
So I can sympathize on the margin with In-N-Out waving the flag and pretending that we are out on the range moseying up to the chuck wagon, free as the high plains drifter or Wyatt Earp. I think that they are wrong, because like it or not, this is a complex society that requires a considerable level of regulation to function. It's not the sort of conclusion that makes you all warm and happy, but I think it is a true statement.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)