Lauren Zumbach

What is a vaccine passport and will you need one to travel?

When travelers venture back out, many — especially those flying overseas — will need to manage new requirements to prove they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 or received a vaccine. Travel industry trade groups, airlines and other organizations are developing so-called vaccine passports to make it easier to navigate changing rules. Most are in early stages or only used in certain destinations, though their creators say they are working to expand use. What’s less clear is whether any will emerge as a standard accepted broadly worldwide. In the mean time, here’s what you need to know. What is a vaccine passport? A vaccine passport is a record of a traveler’s COVID-19-related health data, including whether they have been vaccinated or tested negative for the virus that causes it. Some countries required visitors show proof of certain vaccinations, such as yellow fever, before COVID-19, but the digital systems being developed would be more efficient than the current paper-based system, said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for airlines. The airline group said the app it’s developing is focused on COVID-19 requirements, but it has the potential to cover additional vaccines. The apps also provide information to help travelers navigate COVID-19 travel restrictions, including the type of test required at their destination. Who’s making them? The airline trade group is developing an app called Travel Pass meant to be used by any airline. Another, CommonPass, is a project from Swiss NGO the World Economic Forum and The Commons Project Foundation, a nonprofit that develops technology for public use. Clear, a service that lets members use biometrics to verify their identity at airport security and started operating at O’Hare International Airport in 2019, has a Health Pass app. Some airlines have their own versions. How does it work? That depends on the app. In addition to sharing information on travel requirements and testing sites, some ask users to upload their health records. Others, including CommonPass, let users connect to lab results and vaccination records through the app, which The Commons Project Foundation CEO Paul Meyer said helps prevent tampering. Users get a QR code they can show the airline before boarding or at customs, if their destination accepts the app as proof they meet the requirements to enter. Clear uses CommonPass’s technology to link to users’ health records. On certain United Airlines and Delta Air Lines flights from Los Angeles to Hawaii, Clear Health Pass users who meet Hawaii’s negative test requirements get a wristband at the gate that allows faster processing on arrival. There is a fee to use Clear at airport security, but Health Pass is free. Do I need one to travel? No. The World Health Organization said last month it does not support making vaccination mandatory for international travel because it’s not yet clear how effective vaccines are at preventing transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, and because access to vaccines is limited. Then there’s the question of whether digital vaccination certificates will be widely accepted. The WHO is working to create a framework for a digital vaccination certificate: something that would help ensure any individual app is widely accepted as proof a traveler meets health requirements, Flint said. Digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation has raised concerns about equity, since worldwide access to the vaccine remains limited. “It’s creating a society of haves and have-nots, who can come in and who can’t,” said Alexis Hancock, EFF’s director of engineering. Where can they be used? Most vaccine passports are still being developed or only in use at certain destinations. In addition to flights between Los Angeles and Hawaii using Clear, CommonPass is being used on JetBlue flights from Boston to Aruba, which requires a negative COVID-19 test. The Commons Project Foundation is working with other airlines, including United Airlines, and is in talks with about 30 countries, in hopes of broadening access, Meyer said. The International Air Transport Association has been testing its app and expects it to be available by late March or early April. Airlines could also integrate portions of the association’s app into their own, Flint said. Some currently only accept COVID-19 test records. Clear said it will begin validating vaccine records soon, and United plans to start letting customers flying to eligible destinations upload and store vaccination records using its app in early April. Do you still need other records? Yes. United Airlines and American Airlines encourage passengers to bring additional documentation of negative tests even if their results have been verified through the airlines’ apps, since international destinations may require additional proof their requirements have been met. Should I be worried about privacy? Vaccine passport creators haven’t shared many details on how they will protect users’ information, Hancock said, raising concerns about privacy and data breaches. The International Air Transport Association and CommonPass said apps won’t store data in a central place and will let users choose when to share it. Consumers may decide it’s worth sharing vaccine status or test results with airlines, which already have a lot of their personal information, said Matthew Kugler, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. Can they be used for anything besides travel? Chicago-based Hyatt is exploring using VeriFLY, the same app American Airlines uses, to let people planning events set up criteria for meeting participants, such as a negative COVID-19 test. The Commons Project Foundation is working with hotels, cruises and schools to potentially use CommonPass to verify test or vaccine records, Meyer said. Clear has partnered with companies that use its app to conduct health questionnaires, temperature checks or require COVID-19 tests for employees or customers. The Buffalo Sabres, for instance, are using Health Pass to have fans get tested and take a screening questionnaire before attending hockey games.

‘We’re not Amazon’: COVID-19 is forcing small stores to try online retail

CHICAGO — Two years ago, Esther Fishman shut down her clothing and gifts shop’s online store. Art Effect’s bricks-and-mortar business, operating in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area, was strong, and selling online seemed like more trouble than it was worth. It seemed like the right call until this spring. When the coronavirus pandemic forced all but essential retail stores to close, Art Effect rushed to get its online store back in business. Fishman has since hired a company to build a new, easier-to-use site. Small neighborhood retailers used to compete with Amazon by catering to local shoppers who enjoy browsing in person. That’s still true, but in the six months since the pandemic began, a growing number are venturing onto Amazon’s turf. Most say online sales are a long way from making up for sluggish in-store sales, and some struggled to shift businesses built for in-person shoppers online. Others say it’s a service they can no longer afford to avoid, especially if a surge in cases forces stores to shut down again. “The old world doesn’t exist anymore. … We’re training people now how easy it is to shop online. There are people who are not comfortable with that, but there are a lot of people with busy lives finding out it’s a good alternative,” Fishman said. “I think it’s only going to grow.” Online shopping has boomed during the pandemic: Estimated U.S. e-commerce sales in the second quarter rose 44.5 percent compared with the same period last year, while overall retail sales fell 3.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Analysts say consumers are likely to shift some spending back to stores as concerns about shopping in person and capacity limits on stores ease. “It’s a mistake to assume everyone getting online is happy about it,” said Brendan Witcher, e-commerce analyst at Forrester Research. Still, the pandemic showed that even small shops can’t afford to ignore online retail, said Diana Smith, associate director at market research firm Mintel. Big chains like Target and Best Buy reported triple-digit growth in online sales during the second quarter. Target reported especially fast growth in services that let shoppers get online orders the same day they’re placed, including a 700 percent increase in drive-up orders, where shoppers can have purchases delivered to their car, and a 350 percent increase in same-day home delivery orders with Shipt. Other major retailers that let customers shop online but lacked curbside pickup rushed to roll it out, including Ulta, Gap and Paper Source. So have several malls, including Hawthorn Mall and Fox Valley Mall in the Chicago suburbs of Vernon Hills and Aurora. This fall, customers will be able to shop any mall store from the shopping centers’ websites, said mall owner Centennial. Meanwhile, ShopRunner, a Chicago-based service that gives members free two-day delivery when shopping at stores in its network, has added more retailers this year than any year since 2015 and plans to introduce same-day delivery at certain retailers in Chicago this month, said CEO Sam Yagan. Smaller retailers that traditionally relied on bricks-and-mortar sales, meanwhile, were left scrambling. “They’re going to be struggling the most because they’re the most behind and have the most challenges to get up and running and catch up with everybody else,” Smith said. At Milk Handmade, which sells locally made women’s apparel and accessories in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, owner Hallie Borden spent the early days of the pandemic “panic-adding” items to the online version of her store. Before the pandemic, only about 10 percent of its merchandise was listed. The online store brought in business from out-of-town customers who would likely never have visited in person, and web sales now account for about half of Milk Handmade’s business, Borden said. Still, “we’re not Amazon,” she said. Borden packs up all online orders on days the shop is closed, something that worries her headed into the holiday season. Shoppers concerned about crowds or whether local shops will struggle to get last-minute orders delivered on time might decide it’s easier to stick with Amazon. “It’s frustrating big-box stores can get products to customers really fast and I can’t. We’re just trying to prepare customers and set expectations for how long something might take to arrive,” she said. Some local business groups have launched directories to promote businesses’ low-contact shopping options. In west suburban La Grange, the website La Grange Delivers lets specialty retailers outline ways to place orders for curbside pickup or delivery and has lists of restaurants offering outdoor seating, pickup or delivery. “A lot had an online presence, but it wasn’t a priority for them,” said Nancy Cummings, executive director of the La Grange Business Association. “That’s completely shifted.” Still, some stores are easier to recreate online than others. Bras Galore, a shop selling bras, intimate apparel and swimwear, has always emphasized the importance of getting an expert fit, said owner Kathy Bonifas. Even selling to existing customers who had previously been fitted would have been hard, because many gained or lost weight during the pandemic and were no longer sure what size they needed. “That’s always been our adage: Don’t buy online or you’ll buy the wrong size,” she said. Being limited to bricks-and-mortar sales makes the city’s 25 percent capacity limit especially challenging, she said. “How are you supposed to be at 25 percent of your sales and 100 percent of your rent, and no one is helping you out financially?” AlleyCat Comics, in the Andersonville neighborhood, built an online store but most customers avoiding shopping in person still seem to prefer calling the store and having an employee serve as a personal shopper, said Selene Idell, who owns the shop with her husband, Nicholas. People rarely come in search of a specific title, which makes buying online tougher, she said. “They want to browse and look at the pictures and see if they like the art. Comic book shoppers are particular about the book’s condition. It’s a very hands-on kind of business,” she said. AlleyCat plans to hold online-only sales during the holidays to encourage shoppers to check out the online store. “I think it’s beneficial for us for running the business, but it’s not making any money right now,” she said. Selling online is also extra work, especially for stores with inventory that changes frequently. “It’s a tricky balance. It takes time to take photos, edit them, write the copy, and put it online,” said Merl Kinzie, who owns The Shudio, a shop selling plants, vintage apparel and gifts in the Pilsen neighborhood. A big chain that will sell dozens, if not hundreds, of a particular shirt only needs to put that effort in once. Vintage or resale clothing is usually one of a kind. The Shudio had an online store before the pandemic but it wasn’t a priority because customers drawn to its focus on sustainability seemed to prefer shopping in person. Lincoln Park-area kids’ resale shop The Second Child is more optimistic about online sales even though it has the same challenges with one-of-a-kind merchandise. Before the pandemic, The Second Child only sold its highest-end pieces — about 3 percent of the roughly 5,000 items in its bricks-and-mortar store — online. Now, owner Amy Helgren estimates shoppers can find 90 percent online. Even before the pandemic, Helgren worried about competition from Amazon, a one-stop shop that lets busy parents buy whenever they have time, even if that’s the middle of the night, when her bricks-and-mortar store is closed. “The first thing I do now when I wake up is check my phone for online orders,” Helgren said. “It has to be at their convenience. They want what they need, and they want it now,” she said. Richard Forsythe, who owns Lincoln Square pet supply shop Ruff Haus Pets, said online sales have been growing since it launched an online store about a month into the pandemic, though the bricks-and-mortar store still generates most of the business. He just hopes the online growth doesn’t come at the expense of sales at the store, which moved to a larger location last fall. When people come to the shop, they might pick up an extra treat or toy for their pet. “When you’re online, it’s ‘What do I need?’” he said. Jewelry and accessories boutique Embellish saw online sales slow once the shop reopened to customers, said owner Carrie Bowers. She still thinks the days of getting up at 6 a.m. and working until 1 a.m. to get the online store in business were worth it. “We’ve had a lot of new customers, and I think that’s being able to see what we’re about before you walk in,” she said. “And who knows if we’ll have to close down again? It’s something we have to have.”
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