The Buffalo Bills earlier this week became the first NFL franchise to indicate that a vaccine passport will be required to attend games during the 2021 season at newly renamed Highmark Stadium, which could go from hosting zero fans during the 2020 regular season to returning to its full capacity of 71,608.
But that's only if enough fans comply with the passport protocol using New York's Excelsior Pass vaccine passport system — a phone app where users can upload proof of vaccinations. As reported by Forbes, the state set up the system as a first-of-its-kind vaccine passport in the U.S., allowing for businesses and residents to use it for areas where vaccinations are a requirement.
Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz announced Tuesday the Bills would be allowed to play games at full stadium capacity, if the passport system is enforced. "There's no God-given right to attend a football game," Poloncarz said at a news conference, noting it’s a voluntary decision to attend games.
The concept of vaccine passports has been controversial at the nexus of politics and private business. According to Forbes, it will likely still be up to teams to decide how fans are vetted for entry to games for the 2021 season. The Buffalo decision means the NFL certainly won't have a uniform policy for all its fans, given that lawmakers in Florida and Texas have banned vaccine passports.
Though an NFL first, vaccine-based vetting at the gate is not unprecedented in professional sports. Forbes points out that the NBA's Miami Heat have opened two lower bowl sections for fully vaccinated fans, requiring fans to show proof they've been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks before attending a game.
The college level is even more murky. Many schools have indicated they plan to fill their football stadiums to full capacity this fall, but none so far have said attendance will be contingent on vaccination.
In South Carolina, where COVID-19 restrictions regarding gatherings of any size were lifted in early March, the University of South Carolina is planning on full-capacity crowds for football, but not necessarily with proof of vaccination. “I’m not sure that’s going to be necessary,” USC president Bob Caslen said Wednesday, as reported by The Charlotte Observer.
USC athletic director Ray Tanner was asked in a March radio interview whether there was a percentage of vaccinations among South Carolina residents that had to be reached before he would feel comfortable returning to normal, and he admitted he wasn’t sure. At the moment, 37.4 percent of South Carolina residents have at least one vaccine dose, while 23.3 percent are fully vaccinated. Currently, all South Carolinians age 16 and older can get their COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are in consultation with the CDC and their guidance on large gatherings. The state also has some guidance they give us based on where the conditions for the state are for large gatherings,” Caslen said. “We’re going to comply with what those guidance are. If it allows us to be 100%, that’s exactly what we would like to do — and if we have the ability to do that, we’ll definitely do that.”