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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Voting rights: Ken Frazier, Black CEOs urge firms to oppose restrictive laws

‘There is no middle ground’ — Black CEOs urge companies to oppose restrictive voting laws

"A group of Black business executives are imploring corporate leaders in the U.S. to take forceful stands against efforts to restrict voting access, following a new law in Georgia that critics say will disproportionally hurt voters of color.

Two of the organizers — Merck CEO Ken Frazier and Ken Chenault, former American Express CEO — appeared Wednesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,”describing the effort as a moral obligation in the face of longstanding injustices faced by Black voters.

“Corporations have to stand up. There is no middle ground,” said Chenault, who was one of the first Black chief executives at a Fortune 500 company. “This is about all Americans having the right to vote, but we need to recognize the special history of the denial of the right to vote for Black Americans, and we will not be silent,” he added.

Republicans lawmakers in Georgia supported the state’s recent legislation, and Democrats opposed it. Former President Donald Trump, who lost to Biden, and other Republicans have falsely claimed that Georgia’s election last year was rife with voter fraud. President Joe Biden in November became the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992, and two Democrats — Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff — also defeated their GOP opponents in runoff elections.

Civil rights groups in Georgia have been critical of some of the state’s largest companies for not being more vocal and direct in opposing the legislation before it was signed into law last week by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp.

A number of companies issued statements later Wednesday, after the Frazier and Chenault interview, that expressed support for voting rights. And in a memo to employees Wednesday morning, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian expressed his displeasure with the final version of the Georgia legislation, calling it “unacceptable.”

The CEO of another Georgia company, Coca-Cola’s James Quincey, told CNBC the new law is “wrong.”

Kemp, in an interview on CNBC’s “Closing Bell,” dismissed the corporate push back, repeatedly contending that it makes voting more secure in the state while touting its provisions to make ballot drop boxes permanently part of elections, for example.

“There were counties last year that didn’t even have a drop box because it’s never appeared in the law before,” Kemp said, noting the law mandates all Georgia counties have at least one drop box. However, critics say the legislation will have the effect of reducing their availability in populous counties like Fulton and Dekalb.

“We have 159 counties in Georgia. One hundred and thirty-four of those counties under this legislation will be offering more hours of early voting, not less, so I would encourage these CEOs to look at these other states they’re doing business in, and compare what the real facts are to Georgia, and I think their focus will probably need to be in other places and not here,” Kemp said.

Earlier Wednesday, Frazier stressed that he was concerned about restrictive voting proposals being introduced in other states.

“Georgia is the leading edge of a movement all around this country to restrict voting access,” Frazier said. He added, “These kinds of bills have to be stopped in their tracks because you have to actually spend time reading this bill to understand what it does, and I think corporations ought to take a very strong stand in Georgia and every place else.”

Frazier pushed back strongly on the suggestion that, by specifically condemning the Georgia changes and similar efforts being pushed in other states, corporations would mistakenly wade into tangles of partisan politics.

Free and fair access to the ballot was never a partisan issue. It’s a fundamental constitutional right.

“If we allow a party to adopt as one of its fundamental strategies voter suppression, then I don’t think the answer should be, ‘Well we can’t comment on voter suppression because otherwise we’re being partisan,’” said Frazier, who is set to retire as Merck CEO later this year after a decade at the helm. “Free and fair access to the ballot was never a partisan issue. It’s a fundamental constitutional right.” 

For the Georgia law, in particular, Frazier stressed he was not claiming every single provision was restrictive and hurt Black voters. For example, proponents of the bill note it mandates two Saturdays of early voting leading up to general elections, when previously only one had been required.

Many other aspects are problematic, Frazier contended, such as limits on the locations and accessibility of ballot drop boxes, as well restrictions on giving food and water to voters while they wait in line. Other critics have noted the law shortens the time allowed to request an absentee ballot. “In totality, these changes will make it much harder for certain voters to vote,” Frazier said.

“There’s already not equal access,” Frazier added, referencing data that shows longer wait times for Black voters in Georgia than white counterparts. “What we’re saying is that state by state, in the absence of substantiated and compelling evidence of voter fraud, any actions that are taken to restrict the ability of eligible voters to vote should be opposed,” he said.

A sign is seen as voters line up for the U.S. Senate run-off election, at a polling location in Marietta, Georgia, U.S., January 5, 2021.

Mike Segar | Reuters

Among the dozens of business leaders backing Frazier and Chenault’s efforts is Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments. Hobson earlier this month became chair of Starbucks’ board. She’s the only Black chairwoman of an S&P 500 company. Tony West, chief legal officer at Uber, and Vista Equity Partners founder and CEO Robert Smith also signed the letter organized by Frazier and Chenault, which was published as an ad in Wednesday’s edition of The New York Times.

Companies have to recognize their power to create change on critical aspects of democracy, Chenault said. “If they can’t speak out on this issue, what can they speak out on?” he asked, rhetorically. “People should not be focused on, ’Will it hurt me if I take a stand?” he added.

“With all due respect, many people died for the right to vote, and this one where we’re asking corporations to take a moral stand. If corporations had done this throughout our history, we would be far further along in race relations in this country,” Chenault concluded.

Mallory Blount, a spokesperson for Kemp, contrasted Georgia’s policies for early voting to those of New Jersey, where Merck is headquartered, and New York, where Chenault’s former employer American Express is based.

New Jersey just enacted early in-person voting this week, although the state already had early in-person absentee voting. And New York, unlike the majority of states including Georgia, does not have no-excuse absentee voting, Blount noted. “We look forward to Mr. Frazier and Mr. Chenault both advocating for their states to join Georgia in increasing voter access and securing the ballot box,” she said in an email.

 CNBC’s Hannah Miao contributed to this report."

Voting rights: Ken Frazier, Black CEOs urge firms to oppose restrictive laws

Brittany Packnett Cunningham speaks on the Derek Chauvin trial. "The reminder that we have to be humanized, even when we are the ones who were murdered, that reminder is another form of trauma."

Witness breaks down on stand watching Floyd repeatedly say ‘I can’t breathe’ SHARE THIS - COPIED During day three of Derek Chauvin’s trial, a witness broke down on the stand as video played of George Floyd repeatedly telling officers, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Coca-Cola, Delta and JPMorgan lead companies in condemning Georgia's voting law

Coca-Cola, Delta and JPMorgan lead companies in condemning Georgia's voting law

By Khristopher J. Brooks

Major U.S. companies are starting to publicly condemn a controversial new voting law recently passed in Georgia, nearly a week after Black clergymen around the state and voting-rights advocates began criticizing them for their silence and threatening some of them with boycotts. 

Top executives at Georgia-headquartered giants Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, as well as the country's biggest bank, JPMorgan Chase, are now issuing public statements that call the legislation "wrong" and "based on a lie" and vowing unspecified action to help change it. 

Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said Wednesday that voting must be accessible to all Americans. While not specifically referencing Georgia, Dimon said Chase stands against efforts that prevent Americans from being able to vote. 

Meanwhile, Delta CEO Ed Bastian told employees in an internal memo Wednesday that the law "does not match Delta's values."

"After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it's evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives," Bastian said. "That is wrong."

Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey told CNBC on Wednesday that Georgia's new voting law is "unacceptable" and "a step backwards."

"This legislation is wrong and needs to be remediated," Quincey said. "We'll continue to advocate in both private and even more clearly in public."

The Georgia law, among other things, requires a photo ID in order to vote absentee by mail. That's an option that more than 1.3 million Georgia voters used during the coronavirus pandemic. It also cuts the time people have to request an absentee ballot and limits where ballot drop boxes can be placed. Democrats and voting rights groups said the law will disproportionately impact voters of color. Georgia's NAACP chapter is challenging the measure in federal court.

Bastian, Dimon and Quincey didn't offer details on how their companies plan to combat Georgia's law, but offered to keep their eye on its impact in the coming months. 

Delta initially issued a statement touting some parts of the law, such as expanded weekend voting, but said "we understand concerns remain over other provisions in the legislation and there continues to be work ahead in this important effort."

Boycotts threatened

The law, which passed last week, has sparked calls for boycotts of major Georgia-based companies including Coca-Cola, Delta, Home Depot and UPS because those companies had not spoken out against it. Home Depot and UPS still haven't publicly opposed the law so far. 

Perhaps part of the reason some Americans hope to hear those companies' stances is because Coca-Cola, Delta and Home Depot have governing boards that are more diverse than the average S&P 500 firm. Four out of 15 of UPS' board members are people of color, or nearly 30%. A recent study by recruiting firm Spencer Stuart found that at the 200 largest companies in the S&P 500-stock index, an average of 10% of their corporate board members were Black. Latino directors made up another 4%.

For Coca-Cola, three of its 12 board members, or 25%, are people of color, while Delta and Home Depot have two diverse board members out of 12, or 17%. 

A group of 72 Black business executives are hoping even more major companies will denounce Georgia's changes. In a letter to corporate America, former American Express CEO Ken Chenault and other leaders noted that more than 40 states are considering election changes similar to Georgia. Chenault said companies must pick a side: Either you want more people to vote or you believe in voter suppression.

"The reality is, corporations have been silent on this issue and that is why we've said action has to be taken," Chenault told "CBS This Morning."

The cult of American Christian Nationalism

We sampled tap water across the US – and found arsenic, lead and toxic chemicals

We sampled tap water across the US – and found arsenic, lead and toxic chemicals

Millions of Americans continue to face serious water quality problems.

“Millions of Americans continue to face serious water quality problems. Illustration: Justin Metz/The Guardian and Consumer Reports

In a nine-month investigation by the Guardian and Consumer Reports we found forever chemicals, arsenic and lead in samples taken across the US

Last modified on Wed 31 Mar 2021 07.11 EDT

In Connecticut, a condo had lead in its drinking water at levels more than double what the federal government deems acceptable. At a church in North Carolina, the water was contaminated with extremely high levels of potentially toxic PFAS chemicals ( a group of compounds found in hundreds of household products). The water flowing into a Texas home had both – and concerning amounts of arsenic too.

All three were among locations that had water tested as part of a nine-month investigation by Consumer Reports (CR) and the Guardian into the US’s drinking water.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, access to safe water for all Americans has been a US government goal. Yet millions of people continue to face serious water quality problems because of contamination, deteriorating infrastructure, and inadequate treatment at water plants.

CR and the Guardian selected 120 people from around the US, out of a pool of more than 6,000 volunteers, to test for arsenic, lead, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and other contaminants. The samples came from water systems that together service more than 19 million people.

A total of 118 of the 120 samples had concerning levels of PFAS or arsenic above CR’s recommended maximum, or detectable amounts of lead. Testing of the samples showed:

  • More than 35% of the samples had PFAS, potentially toxic “forever chemicals”, at levels above CR’s recommended maximum.

  • About 8% of samples had arsenic, at levels above CR’s recommended maximum.

  • In total, 118 out of 120 samples had detectable levels of lead.

The study has some limitations: the quality of the water at one location on a single day doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the water supplied by an entire system or at other times. But the ambitious undertaking, with community water systems chosen by CR’s statisticians from a representative mix of systems across the country, provides a unique view into some of the most significant challenges in America’s ongoing drinking water crisis.

Almost every sample tested had measurable levels of PFAS, a group of compounds found in hundreds of household products. These chemicals are linked to learning delays in children, cancer, and other health problems. More than 35 percent exceeded a safety threshold that CR scientists and other health experts believe should be the maximum.

Yet many consumers have never heard of PFAS.

Hung Ng, a resident of Florida, New York, says he has long used home water filters, in part to remove lead. But the 69-year-old says he didn’t know anything about PFAS until he had his water tested as part of this investigation, which found comparatively high levels of the chemicals in his water. “Now I’ve got to find something to filter out the PFAS,” Ng says.

The tests revealed other problems as well. About 8% of samples had levels of arsenic – which gets into drinking water through natural deposits or industrial or agricultural pollution – above CR’s recommended maximum for drinking water. And almost every sample had measurable amounts of lead, a heavy metal that leaches from corroding water lines and home plumbing fixtures. It is unsafe at any level.

In response to the findings, Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Andrea Drinkard says that 93% of the population supplied by community water systems gets water that meets “all health-based standards all of the time” and that the agency has set standards for more than 90 contaminants. That includes arsenic and lead but does not include PFAS.

America’s water crisis, while widespread, affects some communities more than others, according to an analysis of more than 140,000 public water systemspublished by the Guardian in February. It found that access to clean drinking water is highly unequal in the US, with water systems that service poorer and rural counties far more likely to have violations than those that provide water to wealthier or urban ones. Water systems in counties with large Latino populations were particularly likely to have violations, the Guardian found.

PFAS: the ‘forever chemical’ problem

The PFAS results from CR’s tests are particularly troubling.

Manufacturers use PFAS to make stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, water-repellent clothing, nonstick cookware, and hundreds of other common products. The compounds can seep into water from factories, landfills, and other sources. And because they don’t easily break down in the environment, they’re often called “forever chemicals”.

Investigation into the health effects of PFAS exposure is ongoing, but some of the strongest evidence about their potential risks comes from research of about 69,000 people in and around Parkersburg, W Va. The research – part of a settlement between DuPont, which makes some PFAS, and residents of the community – was depicted in the 2019 movie Dark Waters.

It found a “probable link” between exposure to a type of PFAS and six health problems: high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and testicular and kidney cancers. Research has also linked some PFAS to learning delays in children.

At least 2,337 communities in 49 states have drinking water known to be contaminated with PFAS, according to a January analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization.

CR’s tests results confirm the ubiquity of the chemicals: We found PFAS in 117 of the 120 samples we tested, from locations across the country.

Despite mounting evidence of widespread contamination and health risks, the EPA has still not set an enforceable legal limit for PFAS in drinking water. Instead, it has established only voluntary limits, which apply to just two of the better-studied forever chemicals–PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid–at 70 parts per trillion combined. 

Harvard environmental health professor Philippe Grandjean has suggested that the limit should be just 1 ppt for PFOA and PFOS, citing his 2013 research– partly funded by the EPA – showing decreased vaccine response in children exposed to the chemicals. 

CR’s scientists say the maximum allowed amount should be 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical and 10 ppt for two or more.Among the 120 samples CR tested, more than a third had PFAS levels above 10 ppt, and more than a quarter exceeded 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical.

Two samples had PFAS levels above the federal advisory level of 70 ppt, with the highest amount – 80.2 ppt–coming from a sample that Jim Vaughn, a 76-year-old retired electrical equipment salesman, collected at his church in Pittsboro, NC.

Vaughn wasn’t particularly surprised, he says. Places such as Pittsboro–a community of about 6,700 on the fringes of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which is anchored by three universities and filled with industry and high-tech business – are used to getting “dumped on,” he says. “It’s that little feeling of helplessness. Is there something that the town will do about it? Or will we let it ride?”

Indeed, residents of Pittsboro have reason to worry, beyond the results of CR’s tests. In 2007, an EPA study found PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River Basin, a major source of drinking water for the eastern half of North Carolina. Some of the highest levels came from the Haw River in the basin’s north end – where Pittsboro gets its water.

Ongoing research out of Duke University, in nearby Durham, has also raised concerns. It found that levels of PFAS in a study of 49 Pittsboro residents’ blood are two to four times higher than that of the general US population. Heather Stapleton, the project’s lead investigator, says Vaughn’s test results align with her team’s findings.

Jim Vaughn became concerned about the water in Pittsboro, North Carolina, after testing found PFAS in the supply.
Jim Vaughn became concerned about the water in Pittsboro after testing found PFAS in the supply.Photograph: Jeremy M Lange/The Guardian

“If you think about the number of communities that could be impacted, it’s close to a million people,” she says.

Chris Kennedy, town manager for Pittsboro, says the town was not a source of PFAS but that it was “diligently working towards removing PFAS from our potable water supply”. He adds that the town is installing filters at the water treatment plant to remove at least 90% of PFAS by the end of 2021 and is taking steps “to reduce contamination into the Haw River, which will provide the best results long term”.

Arsenic: a toxin in the water

More than 1,200 miles away from Pittsboro, Sandy and Scott Phillips sat around their kitchen table in Texas on a weekday in February reflecting on the test results for their water samples.

Last year, looking to downsize, they built the custom home of their dreams in a new development in Round Rock, 20 miles north of Austin.

But soon after moving in, they began to notice the water had an unusual odor, prompting them to invest thousands in a water softening and reverse osmosis water filtration system.

Not long after, the couple got their water tested as part of CR’s project, taking samples from water before it was filtered. The results were concerning: high not just in PFAS (32.8 ppt) but also in arsenic, at 3.3 parts per billion. “We get this gorgeous house,” Sandy Phillips says, “and then the water is terrible.”

Bill Brown, general manager of the Jonah Water Special Utility District, the couple’s water supplier, says it “has complied with all federal and state minimum contaminant level standards for arsenic and lead for many years”. He says that while CR’s results conflicted with its records, the water district will investigate. He did not comment on the PFAS found in the Phillipses’ water.

In the early 2000s, the EPA considered a drinking water limit for arsenic of 3 ppb, before settling on 10 ppb as an amount that balances the costs for water system operators while reducing health risks. CR scientists have long said the EPA should set a limit of 3 ppb or lower, in line with what other health experts and environmental advocacy groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have called for.

Almost every sample CR tested had measurable levels of arsenic, including 10–or about 8 percent–with levels between 3 and 10 ppb. Previous tests from CR and others have shown elevated levels in juices and baby foods.

Research suggests that exposure to even low levels of arsenic can pose health risks over the long term. A 2014 study in the journal Environmental Health found an association between water with arsenic of 5 ppb or greater and a five- to six-point IQ reduction in children.

Two states–New Hampshire and New Jersey–have lowered their arsenic limit to 5 ppb, citing warnings from studies. The EPA itself even sets its “maximum contaminant level goal”–the level below which there is no known or expected risk to health–at zero for arsenic.

Lead: no safe amount

The Phillipses, in Texas, were especially fortunate to have installed a filtration system because the results of their unfiltered tap test showed high levels of not only arsenic but also lead, at 5.8 ppb. (CR’s follow-up tests of the couple’s filtered water showed trace amounts of lead and levels of arsenic and PFAS well within CR’s recommended limits.)

The risks of lead, and problems with how water utilities test for it, became a national concern when news of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., exploded in 2015. Scientists and the EPA agree that there’s no safe exposure level of lead. But taking into consideration the feasibility of achieving lower levels, the EPA says utilities have to take significant steps to lower lead levels – including replacing lead service lines – only when 10% of samples from homes in their service areas exceed 15 ppb.

Consumer advocates say those EPA regulations are problematic – a reality underscored by the testing results of water being piped into a condo owned by Stephen and Robin Newberg in New Britain, Connecticut.

Lead typically works its way into drinking water through lead pipes that feed people’s homes or in the home’s plumbing itself. 

While New Britain’s annual water quality report for customers indicates that its average lead level is 6 ppb, the Newbergs’ results showed a concentration of 31.2 ppb, more than double the EPA’s action level of 15 ppb.

Stephen Newberg, a former postal worker, says he drinks filtered water and his wife drinks bottled water, so he’s not personally worried. But the 66-year-old sits on the board of his condo, and he’s concerned about the possibility of the heavy metal being in his neighbors’ water.

Ramon Esponda, New Britain’s deputy director of public works, says that the city complies with the EPA’s lead regulations, based on its 2020 tests, which found an average lead level of 2 ppb. Esponda says that results of a single sample may be thrown off by new fixtures, recent plumbing work, or other factors.

The installation of new lead service lines – pipes that connect a water main in a street to individual buildings – was banned in 1986. But an estimated 3 million to 6 million homes and businesses nationwide still get water through older lines that contain lead, according to EPA estimates. An untold number of homes have plumbing fixtures made of the heavy metal. Exposure can especially pose risks in children, such as reduced IQ and behavioral problems.

The Newbergs’ results were the only ones in CR’s tests to be above the EPA action level. But almost every sample had measurable levels of lead, and health experts emphasize that no amount of lead is safe.

Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the NRDC, says the Newbergs’ results illustrate several problems with how the EPA regulates lead. One is that water systems typically test for lead only once every three years, and larger systems can get waivers to test every nine years. Another is that the sample sizes are generally small.

“There’s very little oversight, and they may not be testing the highest-risk homes,” Olson says.

The EPA, in the waning days of the Trump administration, finalized changes to the lead regulation that would require testing in elementary schools and established new rules regarding the steps water systems must take when lead is detected.

But the NRDC, the NAACP, and other groups recently sued the EPA, saying those steps didn’t go far enough, and urged the Biden administration to improve on them.


People seeking cleaner drinking water do have some options for reducing their exposure to dangerous contaminants. But consumer advocates say that fixing the problem shouldn’t be up to consumers.

“Americans shouldn’t have to navigate bureaucracy and be forced to make significant investments in order to access clean tap water,” says Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy.

Legislation passed last year by the House of Representatives would have authorized $22.5bn to replace lead service lines across the US, according to the NRDC, but the bill died in the Senate. The NRDC called for the Biden administration and Congress to enact legislation requiring the expeditious removal and replacement of lead lines. 

Congress is also focusing on PFAS. In January, a congressional taskforce urged the Biden administration to take immediate steps to address PFAS contamination by, among other things, directing the EPA to phase out any uses for the chemicals deemed “non-essential,” to finalize a standard for PFOA and PFOS, and to accelerate cleanup.

PFAS have been detected in North Carolina’s Haw River in quantities that give concern to nearby residents, especially in Pittsboro where their water comes directly from the river.
PFAS have been detected in North Carolina’s Haw River in quantities that give concern to nearby residents, especially in Pittsboro, where their water comes directly from the river. Photograph: Jeremy M Lange/The Guardian

Democratic congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a member of the taskforce, responded to the findings from CR’s tests, saying they show that “we do not have any time to waste as we battle these toxic chemicals.” She renewed her call for PFAS to be banned and designated as hazardous.

Pittsboro’s Jim Vaughn says that while government and industry debate, residents of his town are left with unsafe water. “The town that has the polluters in it, they’re getting their water from upstream, so what’s their impetus” to fix the problem, he says. “The ones downstream have no power over the ones upstream to force them to do that. I just don’t think it’s fair.”

Methodology: how consumers helped us test America’s tap water

Consumer Reports and the Guardian teamed up to ask our readers if they could help us investigate the nation’s drinking water. The response was overwhelming: more than 6,000 said “Yes!” From that pool, CR statisticians winnowed the group down to 120 volunteers representing a cross-section of the country and the water systems that service it. That included 12 samples from each of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 10 jursidictional regions. Within each region, testers were chosen to provide a mix of urban and rural locations as well as small and large water systems.

We were particularly interested in PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), chemicals notorious as much for their potential health risks as for their perseverance in the environment. Municipalities often don’t test PFAS, and when they do, only on a small scale. Each participant received test kits for PFAS as well as arsenic, lead, and other contaminants of concern, plus a detailed video showing how to collect the samples – precision really matters here!

When tests were complete, we sent the volunteers advice tailored to their specific results. While we can’t draw conclusions about any of the specific water systems, since only one sample came from each, together they provide powerful insights into problems faced by the nation as a whole. “While much of CR’s testing is done in our labs with our scientists, projects like these, need real-people,” says James Dickerson, CR’s chief scientific officer. “We are so grateful to the readers who made this possible, particularly those who shared their stories with us.”

  • This story was partly funded by Guardian contributors to its Toxic America series. Reporting in North Carolina for the Guardian was supported by the Water Foundation.

  • To support federal action on clean water, go to

  • Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with any advertiser on this site.”

Republicans seek to make vaccine passports the next battle in the pandemic culture wars

Republicans seek to make vaccine passports the next battle in the pandemic culture wars

President Biden delivers remarks on the pandemic response and vaccinations at South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Monday.

Republicans are opening a new front in the pandemic culture wars, attacking efforts by the Biden administration to develop guidelines for  coronavirusvaccination passports that businesses can use to determine who can safely participate in activities such as flights, concerts and indoor dining.

The issue has received an increasing amount of attention from some of the party’s most extreme members and conservative media figures, but it has also been seized on by Republican leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate.

“We are not supporting doing any vaccine passports in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said Monday. “It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.”

Proof of vaccination to travel or attend school is not new, but the coronavirus has introduced a potential need to modernize outdated paper standards. (Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Other Republicans have used more inflammatory rhetoric, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) calling the passport idea “Biden’s Mark of the Beast” and some conservative activists comparing it with Nazi policies to identify Jews.

The hyper-charged rhetoric is directed at a nascent initiative between the Biden administration and private companies to develop a standard way for Americans to show they have received a coronavirus vaccination. The idea behind the passports or certificates is that they would be a way to ensure that people could return to normal activities without risking further spread of a virus that has killed more than 550,000 Americans.

Unlike some of the recent attacks from conservatives focused on cultural or economic issues that centered on children’s books and “Satan Shoes,” this one focuses directly on the Biden administration and taps into a long-standing warning from the right: that a powerful federal government will try to control the population.

“There’s been this pent-up opposition to lockdowns and mask mandates and so this is building on that,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “Now there’s this suggestion that if you don’t get a vaccine, you might not be able to do — we’re not quite sure what. I can see how there’s a market for that concern.”

The attacks also focus on an area that’s been a strength for Biden: his handling of the pandemic. Under Biden’s watch, vaccine distribution has significantly ramped up and, according to federal survey data, reports of vaccine hesitancy are decreasing. Covid-19 deaths have also plummeted from January highs, in part because larger portions of older Americans have been inoculated. But there’s been an uptick in infections in recent days as states have relaxed coronavirus restrictions.

Now the effort by some Republicans to create doubt about a vaccine passport program threatens to define the Biden administration effort while it’s still in the earliest phase, blunting its ability to roll out an idea that could be a popular project and putting the administration on the defensive.

The discussion around a passport has been led by various industries, including airlines, entertainment venues and sports leagues. Biden administration officials have repeatedly said there will be no national mandate.

Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist, said the fierce opposition from many in the party spawned organically and called the news that the White House is working with the business community on vaccine passports or certificates “a trial balloon that went over like a lead balloon.”

“A healthy distrust of government when it comes to health care is nothing new,” said Gorman, who used to work for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It’s a line of messaging that has been very successful to Republicans going back to Obamacare and the like.”

Paul Matzko, a historian and author of “The Radio Right,” a volume on how the conservative movement grew via talk radio, said a Democrat in the White House typically coincides with conspiracy theories growing on the right.

The current fervor over a vaccine passport feeds into existing conservative narratives that Democratic administrations try to track and control the population.

“This is a very old concern — this idea of globalized elites with a sinister plan for the world who are going to take away American sovereignty,” Matzko said.

“They want us to be seen, we can’t escape them, we have a mark, whether it is a passport, or a chip or a bar code,” Matzko added, explaining the various manifestations of this theory. “It’s kind of outlandish.”

The conservative attacks were launched after the White House took on a more significant role coordinating a private-sector-initiated vaccine passport effort — with administration officials preferring to refer to it as “vaccine verification” — as aides work with dozens of federal agencies to identify what vaccination data is available and how the passports could best be deployed, said five officials with knowledge of the efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private deliberations.

Some federal agencies are actively working to help provide vaccine passports to their staff or people who use their services. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides health care to millions of military veterans, is “implementing a VA-issued vaccine credential,” according to slides obtained by The Post.

The passport plan builds off work led by the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that in-development passport data systems meet privacy and accessibility standards and are protected against fraud.

A wide range of private-sector and nonprofit organizations, including Microsoft and the World Health Organization, have been pursuing a range of possible systems, with IBM working with the state of New York to pilot one passport.

Biden administration officials have said they’re trying to strike a delicate political balance: help coordinate the ongoing push for vaccine passports without it being perceived as government-driven or as White House overreach.

“From a Federal perspective, vaccines and vaccine credentials are matters of individual choice — there is no mandate for either,” according to internal HHS slides obtained by The Washington Post. But the ubiquity of vaccine passports, driven by the private sector, “could become perceived as a Federal mandate even though there is none.”

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients echoed some of those points Tuesday in a call with governors, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post.

“We’re not going to have any federally mandated, universal vaccine credential, and there will not be a federal database,” Zients said in response to questions by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), promising more information in the coming weeks.

Officials also have been holding calls with business leaders, seeking to gauge their interest in vaccine passports and understand new concerns as the issue has become increasingly politicized.

Asked about the project Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki described the administration effort as “focused on guidelines.”

Psaki also noted that there will not be a centralized federal database showing who in the country has received vaccinations and there are no plans for any federal mandate that all citizens have a vaccination credential.

She declined to provide any timeline about when federal guidance on the issue might be released.

A growing number of travel and entertainment businesses have said they will require customers to prove they have been vaccinated, but some major businesses have said they remain undecided.

Carnival Corp. spokesman Roger Frizzell said the cruise-line giant was “encouraged” by recent vaccination breakthroughs but closely monitoring the “evolving situation” before imposing vaccine requirements. Carnival’s fleet includes the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, both of which became epicenters of coronavirus clusters in 2020.

DeSantis has promised an executive order barring Florida from participating in any vaccination credentialing efforts and is urging the state’s legislature to act as well. The governor has become a leading opponent of pandemic restrictions and has often dismissed the advice of public health experts who have criticized his downplaying the importance of masks and other precautions.

Some Republicans are supportive of a passport program.

Longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz said he’s working with the Bethesda, Md.-based de Beaumont Foundation, a public health organization, to survey voters on their reactions to vaccination passports, identify which messages were resonating and understand whether “passports” is the right term to describe the credentials.

“It’s been politicized in two different directions,” said Luntz, arguing that liberals worry that a passport would widen inequities around who has access to vaccines and that conservatives fear it would limit their freedoms.

Luntz said the growing politicization around the passports also threatened the entire initiative. “Unless the Biden administration tempers both sides down right now, they will find within days it becomes impossible to do. I’ve seen this movie and it doesn’t have a good ending,” he said.

Some Democratic pollsters also acknowledge the issue could have some resonance, depending on how Biden handles the situation.

Republicans do have concerns that Democrats, particularly in coordination with large technology firms, are seeking broad control over the citizenry, said Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “This will fit that narrative,” Greenberg said. “But that’s not America as a whole.”

He said it’s unclear where conservatives will wage battles over vaccination requirements, and he noted that schools and employers probably will require proof of vaccination.

“I just think it puts them into an incredibly marginal position,” Greenberg said.

One key to where the party goes on the issue of passports will probably be whether former president Donald Trump weighs in on the issue.

Barry Bennett, a former Trump adviser, said the paranoia is probably overblown, and instead likened the passport idea to the yellow fever vaccination card he shows when traveling to countries in Africa.

“For someone who travels international a great deal, I want to be able to prove in a secure format that I’ve been vaccinated so I can go see my clients,” Bennett said. “If you’re talking about having to show papers to get into 7-Eleven to get a Slurpee, I think that’s paranoia. I think people are talking past each other, which is typical Washington.”

Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.“