- People who have refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are now facing more restrictions at jobs, entertainment venues, sporting events, and restaurants.
- The unvaccinated say the growing limitations make them feel isolated and targeted.
- Experts say it’s important to understand the feelings of the unvaccinated, but add that restrictions are necessary to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Are we creating a two-tiered COVID-19 society?
Those on the non-vaccinated side of pandemic restrictions say it certainly feels that way.
On the other hand, government and business officials who are implementing the restrictions for health and safety reasons say they have no other choice.
Meanwhile, sociology experts say non-vaccinated people, rather than simply swayed by politics, may have been influenced by a combination of societal health shifts that began in the 1980s and by a seemingly endless modern day flow of misinformation.
One sociologist calls them “victims” but with an addendum.
“I think it’s very easy to blow off those who have chosen to be anti-vax as [uneducated, stubborn, and political],” Richard Carpiano, PhD, MPH, a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside, told Healthline.
“But these are people who are victims. Misinformation has been circulated at almost a faster pace than the virus itself, and these people may have fallen victim to that,” he explained.
There are also some people, he added, who still have trouble accessing the vaccine or who have legitimate reasons to not be vaccinated.
The addendum? The restrictions are needed.
“You do have a choice [whether to get vaccinated],” Carpiano said. “We’ve done the carrots and they are important, but unfortunately now we have to do more.”
What the unvaccinated face
Restrictions on what unvaccinated people can do and what they must do to take part in activities — from dining to enjoying a sports team to going to work — are popping up on both local and national levels.
At TD Garden in Boston, the home of the Celtics and Bruins as well as the setting for concerts and other events, all attendees over the age of 12 will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (at-home tests are not accepted) as of September 30.
In San Francisco, vaccine proof is now required to enter restaurants, bars, large indoor events, and fitness centers.
Large businesses, such as Facebook and Google, are requiring vaccines or regular testing (at the employee’s expense). More businesses are following suit.
Los Angeles County put strict requirements into place as well, and could add more should things not improve, Dr. Muntu Davis, MPH, Los Angeles County’s health officer told Healthline.
And in mid-September, President Joe Biden announced that all employers with more than 100 workers must require their employees to either be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. This affects nearly 80 million people in the United States.
In addition, all workers at healthcare facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funds, as well as all employees and contractors of the federal government, must be vaccinated.
The view from the unvaccinated
Those choosing to remain unvaccinated say all these limitations can make a person feel isolated and singled out.
“This is where we are headed,” Ohio resident Renee Denton, who has no plans to get vaccinated, told Healthline.
Susan, who preferred not to use her full name due to the pushback she’s received, works in the public health industry and decided not to get vaccinated, because she had a mild case of COVID-19 and feels she now has natural immunity.
Susan said these restrictions make unvaccinated people feel targeted as well as misunderstood.
“I’m not anti-vax. I just want to take it when I think I need it,” Susan said.
She remembers watching with concern when President Biden announced the workplace vaccine requirements on national television last month.
“I just feel like a target who is being bullied by someone who was [supposed] to bring an end to this pandemic and protect me,” she said.
Since she has small children and doesn’t attend events outside her home often, Susan said she’s not that concerned — for now — about restrictions. But she does project ahead and wonder.
“I guess the one thing would be that I think some cultural institutions that I might want my kids to experience might not allow us in — like orchestra hall, museums, theatrical productions,” she said.
It also could mean changes in how they choose vacations.
“My husband and I would like to take a short vacation, and we thought about a weekend in New York City, but are not going to do that now. We will probably go to Key West or something instead,” she said.
For Denton, a big impact will be dining out, something she loves to do.
The same goes for planning their annual family vacations. Now, Denton said, they will cherry-pick spots that are more open to the unvaccinated and within driving distance, since they might face flying restrictions.
“Eventually,” she said, “we could end up in a situation where we can never fly again.”
Her employer has said they’ll be requiring vaccinations for all employees, even though Denton works from home for now.
Denton said, because she traveled before the pandemic once or twice per year, she’d have to vaccinate to keep her job.
She’s waiting and hoping for a religious exemption to come. Otherwise, she said, she could be out of a job.
Susan is weighing whether she will quit her job or get vaccinated when vaccine mandates arrive. She’s leaning toward quitting.
She believes the restrictions now being implemented at the workplace, businesses, and entertainment venues are too severe.
“There are people like me who have been completely ostracized,” the Minnesota resident said. “It’s become so political. People want to put you in a camp. They hear you’re unvaccinated and they automatically assume you’re [a right wing Republican]. Well, that’s not me.”
Denton wonders if vaccinations will even help get the world out of the pandemic.
“It’s just going to create division, that’s all,” she said. “I think anyone who wants to be vaccinated is at this point.”
Experts grapple with the need to protect the fragile and young but also point out that, while it may be infuriating to some, everyone who is unvaccinated doesn’t hold identical beliefs.
They also note that recent history may have helped push the United States toward this moment.
Reich sees part of the divide as historical, driven by the nation’s push for personal healthcare responsibility that came in full swing during the 1980s.
“When you put it in historical context and ask what is the boundary between community responsibility and personal freedom, you can see some interesting things,” Reich told Healthline.
Health, she pointed out, has become very much a personal responsibility. Jogging was a first push toward it. So were things like tracking your own BMI and weight.
There’s even a booming industry around it: fitness trackers are plentiful and seem to be on the wrist of just about everyone you pass now. Many closely count how many steps they’ve taken in a day.
To a point, it has worked in helping people embrace healthier living. But, Reich said, it has also heightened the feeling of personal choice around medicine, something people might not have seen in other vaccination eras, such as the emergence of the polio vaccine in the 1950s.
“You have to sympathize with this,” Reich said, “because we have totally individualized the responsibilities of health.”
The challenge with that, she noted, is “public health [as a whole] sold personal responsibility, not community good. [People who are choosing not to vaccinate for personal reasons] are not making that up. We sold it.”
Now, she said, with a highly infectious disease at play, that personal focus does not work.
When the polio vaccine first arrived, she said, vaccinations for children were not mandated at first. So, wealthier and more connected families got access quickly. Those with less did not.
So, Reich said, mandates were put in place — with federal funding — to even the field. It worked.
But this pandemic, she said, is the first time in U.S. history that adults are being asked to take part in a community solution and are being pushed to do so via restrictions.
“Clearly, we don’t have a culture set up for this,” she said.
Speaking to the unvaccinated
Dr. Mary Tipton is on the front line of patient care. With a busy practice in Utah, she treats thousands of people. Her goal is for every one of her patients who don’t have medical restrictions to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
But she feels restrictions are the wrong move.
“The risk I see with running with mandates is they become even more in opposition,” Tipton told Healthline. “When you push something on someone like this, they push back. They think, ‘I may as well take a stand,’ and they dig their heels in.”
Tipton believes a personal one-on-one approach works best and can come from a trusted source, such as a medical professional.
She recently spoke with about 150 Air Force members. Many, she said, are upset at the notion that they may be forced to take the vaccine or lose their positions.
“They are really good people and when you sit down with them, you’ll see they’ve put great thought into this,” she said.
They told her they feel the public sees them as ignorant, something that is hurtful and wrong in their point of view.
And soon, she said, they’ll feel ostracized in the most visible way by losing their jobs.
Her hope? That more unvaccinated people find a chance to speak with someone they trust and weigh what they think with what they may learn.
Will it work? Tipton isn’t sure. She noted that, should workplace vaccine requirements come to her area, she may lose employees over it.
“I don’t think this is a high yielding policy,” she said.
Where to go from here
Mandates are not going away, according to those overseeing them.
While Los Angeles County has imposed among the most restrictive rules, they are not adverse to the idea of placing even stricter rules should the need arise.
“We will continue to monitor the situation as we move into the winter months and hope no additional requirements will be needed,” Davis said.
“But, if they are, we [in Los Angeles] county must use every available tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to continue to save lives in the months ahead, while also keeping schools open and safe and protecting our economy from damage,” he added.
That means, said Carpiano, society will have some adjusting to do.
“No matter how optimal a policy is, it’s not going to be [well-received] by everyone,” he said. “That’s reality.”
Also reality, he said, is the fact that people are dying.
“The fact is, we are in a major crisis,” he said. “COVID is the number three cause of death now and we’re not getting out of it easily. This is going to be our new reality. That’s the hard truth of it.”
And while Carpiano feels for those like Susan, he said, he hopes people realize the power of greater good.
Even work mandates, Carpiano said, fit that “greater good” need.
“Those who say [a vaccine mandate for work] is overstepping? I say it is showing employees that their health and safety is important. Isn’t that why unions were formed?” he said.
Jamie West, a resident of South Dakota who is waiting with hope on a religious exemption, told Healthline she sees this as a “fight for freedom.”
“A last stand of sorts. If we can’t hold onto this freedom of sovereignty of ourselves, what will we have left?,” she said.
Learning from all this
Carpiano hopes that sociologists and society at large study this pandemic, learn from it, and push for change.
First up, he said, is looking at the spread of misinformation via social media that he believes impacted peoples’ decisions.
“Social media is a bit of the Wild West,” he said. “The extent to which misinformation can undermine public health decisions is one we need to look closely at.”
He also hopes we look at federalism versus local action, and how the country can better respond to things, such as a pandemic.
“A hurricane is one thing,” Carpiano said. “It’s regionalized. It’s a clear situation, and we can take action. But when something hits the entire nation like this and in unique ways in different parts? We have to learn how to respond as a whole to something that looks different in many places.”
We also have to figure out what motivates people.
“We tried,” he said. “And even after seeing loved ones die, people still decided not to get vaccinated. I’m not sure what motivation we can find beyond that.”
Reich hopes more people come to the conclusion to get vaccinated.
“With freedom comes responsibility,” she said. “That’s the reality.”