Vaccine Mandates Are Gaining Some Ground at Events

With COVID cases rising due to the Delta variant, the question of making proof of vaccination a requirement to attend events is popping up more often. We asked a lawyer to weigh in on the potential legal ramifications for host organizations — and it’s more straightforward than some may think.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

Ernest N Morial Convention Center

The fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), taking place in person at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, stopped just short of requiring proof of vaccination for entry.

Last week, Hendratta Ali, Ph.D. a geologist and an associate professor in the geosciences department at Fort Hays State University, posed a question on Twitter — “Should our professional organizations have vaccination and masks requirements at our fall in-person meetings?”

The poll results, she tweeted, “are not what I had hypothesized.”

Out of 867 total votes, 87 percent responded yes, 7 percent said no, and 6 percent chose “let’s wait to decide.”

“I think for large conferences, in rooms full of people traveling from all over … yeah, mask AND vaccinations ought to be required,” replied Robert Mahon,

Ph.D., a sedimentologist, stratigrapher, and assistant professor at the University of New Orleans.

In a few months, Mahon’s home city will host the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which has stated that only those who are fully vaccinated should attend in person. AGU has stopped just short of requiring proof of vaccination for entry, but it has taken a stronger stance than many. “We don’t want people who are not vaccinated coming to the meeting. We don’t believe that it’s safe to do so,” Lauren Parr, vice president of meetings, told Convene Aug. 9. However, with the meeting still three months away, the door is still open for a mandate — “…we may move forward with that,” Parr said.

HIMSS, which kicked off Aug. 9, is requiring proof of vaccination at its event, and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference announced in late July that all players and coaches would need proof of vaccination in order to compete.

What may be holding back some organizers from requiring vaccination is a perception that such a mandate represents a legal challenge. But according to Steven A. Adelman, head of Adelman Law Group and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, it’s pretty cut-and-dried.

“Can a conference organizer require that everyone who seeks to attend in person submit proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test? That is an unequivocal yes,” he told Convene in a June interview.

And what if an attendee protests that submitting proof of vaccination is a violation of HIPAA or their privacy rights? Then they are misinterpreting the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), he said, which “relates only to the provision of medical care and information which is being used by medical-care providers.”

However, what could affect organizers’ ability to ask attendees for proof of vaccination are rapidly changing state laws. As of press time, 16 states have now made vaccine passports — or proof of vaccination — illegal, either by executive order or state legislation.

What does that mean for organizers hosting events in those states? It depends. In Florida — where HIMSS’ 2022 annual conference will convene next March at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando — a statute prohibits state and local governments from issuing documentation to certify vaccine status as well as private businesses from asking customers to prove their vaccination status. In other states, the scope is much more limited, only prohibiting state and local governments and agencies that receive public funding from asking for proof of vaccination.

“Which means that for a privately operated meeting or conference that does not receive state funding, they can still ask for vaccination status,” Adelman said.

It’s not yet clear what the Florida law means for groups with events on the books in the state who want to require proof of vaccination, he said. For example, if this executive order were to result in depressing in-person attendance so much that the meeting becomes economically nonviable, they will have a legal argument for force majeure, he said. Adelman added: “Lawyers will wind up arguing about this because they haven’t faced this situation before.”

Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.


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