Bruce Springsteen is the first live act returning to Broadway. He is now featured at a few dozen shows running at the St. James Theater. What sort of freedom should Springsteen fans have to associate with other Springsteen fans?
Let us suppose Lee loves Springsteen’s music. Lee owns a restaurant in Jersey City called the “Bruce Tramps Bar & Grill.” Lee’s restaurant is filled with Springsteen and E-Street band memorabilia. It plays a revolving soundtrack of Springsteen’s discography. After the recent shutdowns nearly bankrupted Lee and coincided with a very painful divorce, Lee realized how important Springsteen’s life and music are personally and for everyone. As Lee will say, Springsteen matters. The stories Bruce tells are deeply meaningful.
Lee wants to set up a Bruce-safe space. Lee has decided to require as a condition of admission to his restaurant that you show a ticket stub from his performance at the St. James Theater, or any ticket stub from any other live Springsteen performance, ever.
We might think Lee is making a risky business move, but it turns out that Lee’s devotion is common. Bruce has inspired some very dedicated fans. There is even a documentary about their fandom, “Springsteen and I.” Fans of The Boss will talk at length about how his music resonated deeply with them and helped them through difficult times. Writing for The New York Times in 2012, David Brooks admired Springsteen’s talent for helping people to understand themselves and their world. After attending several of his concerts in Europe, Brooks wrote, “The passion among the American devotees is frenzied, bordering on cultish. The intensity of the European audiences is two standard deviations higher.” So, a business revolving around things Springsteen might do very well.
Imagine Lee explained his decision this way: “Things are crazy now. I want a place where ‘Bruce Tramps’ can feel safe and know they are among friends. So the only way you’re getting in here is if you know and care about The Boss. Any Springsteen concert ticket stub will do. I don’t care about your race, sex, sexual orientation, color, or creed. I just want to be sure you get the Boss.” People warn Lee that ticket stubs can be forged and just handed off to others, but Lee says the ticket-stub is a passport to getting into the restaurant. Lee says it’s an important step toward ensuring a safer space for fans.
You know what? That bar & grill might just succeed. People might want that type of environment.
Should Lee be able to have a place like that?
Now imagine all The Boss haters out there. They complain. Why should Lee, and any Bruce Tramps, be able to restrict others from Lee’s bar & grill? They take it to the state. The governor and state legislature of New Jersey are outraged, too. They pass a law. From this point forward, any business operating in New Jersey “may not require patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying Springsteen concert attendance to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business operations in this state.” When asked why, the governor claims that requiring evidence of Springsteen concert attendance reduces individual freedom and harms privacy. As the governor says, people should be free to decide what sounds go in their ears.
Lee complains emphatically, and so do many patrons of the “Bruce Tramps Bar & Grill.” Lee says, “It’s my restaurant! You don’t have to come here!” Well, too bad, Lee, and too bad for all the Bruce Tramps who want to eat and drink there among like-minded others. The state of New Jersey has spoken.
In case this seems outlandish, substitute “COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery” for “Springsteen concert attendance” in the text of imagined NJ law, and you’ve got a quote from a law recently passed in Florida. This is the law that now binds cruise ships, restaurants, health clubs, and… any other business in Florida. Businesses are legally forbidden to demand, as a condition of entry, that patrons provide some written or digital evidence that they are at low risk to transmit COVID-19. If you do require that, agents of the state will come to your business, sooner or later with guns, and compel you to stop or else they’ll impose a $5000 fine per incident. If you don’t pay that fine, ultimately they will use the force of the state to shut you down.
In May, many media outlets quoted Florida governor Ron DeSantis as saying, “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.” Many arguments against such vaccine passports talk about protecting people’s freedoms to decide what goes into their bodies. DeSantis had previously issued an executive order where he claimed that vaccine passports “reduce individual freedom and will harm patient privacy.” When applied to private entities such as restaurants, health clubs, or cruise lines, the least we can say of DeSantis is that he is conceptually confused. You do not enhance freedom by crushing it. That is what the state of Florida is doing, and so too the other states forbidding businesses from demanding “vaccine passports.”
With the “Bruce Tramps Bar & Grill,” it might seem Lee and other fans of the Boss have an idle affectation about the people with whom they’ll keep company. We might even think they’re weird but admit it’s their choice to be that way. If they want to hang around only with other Bruce Tramps at a restaurant, well… more power to them. No one gets hurt from this exercise of their freedom.
The stakes are much higher with communicable disease. Cruise ships are confined spaces where disease can run rampant. This is what happened on the Diamond Princess and other cruise ships at the start of the pandemic. In health clubs, people exercise vigorously and breathe hard, aerosolizing whatever germs are in their lungs. In concerts and stadiums, when people cheer and scream, their mouths are vuvuzelas spewing infection.
The law now forbids Florida businesses from requiring patrons to show they have taken a key step to reduce the risk they pose to others. Even worse, patrons who want to associate only with other risk-averse patrons are now not free to do so in businesses that want to cater to them. That is the cost to freedom from these bans on vaccine passports. (Here we can pass over the loss to freedom that comes when people get infected and are hospitalized or drop dead, as well as the loss of freedom to those whom they infect.)
Even though a cruise line would want to sell me a lower-risk cruise, I am unable to purchase one from a company whose ship departs a Florida port and which requires as a condition of boarding that one provide some proof of vaccine status. That’s at least as groundless as not being able to go to Lee’s bar & grill to hang around only with other Bruce Tramps.
People might disagree about the seriousness of the pandemic or the best ways to manage risk. Here I pass no judgment about what is reasonable to believe about this disease in particular. I admit it seems to me a poor risk management strategy to forbid people to do what they believe best reduces it. (See a related recent great post by John Hasnas.) It also seems like a poor strategy from politicians who claim to protect freedom that they forbid voluntary acts among consenting adults who are concerned about risk. This is analogous to Nevada passing a law that forbids brothels from requiring patrons to wear condoms.
Even if we disagree about how serious COVID-19 is, the least we can do is leave people and businesses alone to sort out how they manage such risks.
Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for thoughts about an earlier draft.