The coronavirus vaccine wasn’t supposed to be a golden ticket. A tiered and efficient rollout was meant to inoculate frontline workers and the most vulnerable before the rest of society.
But scattershot and delayed distribution of the still-limited supply now threatens to create a new temporary social class — one that includes not just people who are at higher risk for infection or severe illness and death, but also grocery store customers in Washington; Indonesian influencers; elementary schoolteachers; American celebrities; New York Post reporters and others who, because of their work or because of luck, have been able to get immunized quickly.
Tests of the vaccines show they’re incredibly effective. But people can still get the coronavirus while in the process of getting inoculated, and could possibly still spread the virus, especially if they come in close contact with others or stop wearing masks.
As a result, as people clamor to get in line for what represents the only real safety from a disease that has killed millions, plenty of individuals who have been vaccinated will wait patiently until they are told it’s safe to gather.
But others will feel emboldened to begin to congregate with their vaccinated peers. Some of them will be among the most privileged people in the world.
Knightsbridge Circle, a luxury travel service in London that charges 25,000 pounds a year for membership, made waves earlier this month when its founder, Stuart McNeill, told The Telegraph that the club would fly members who were 65 or older to the United Arab Emirates to receive privately obtained vaccines. (In Britain, the vaccination is only available through the National Health Service.)
Since going public with the offer, the club, which arranges luxury experiences and accommodations for its members, has received more than 2,000 applications for membership and thousands of phone calls, emails and social media requests, according to Mr. McNeill. He also wrote, in response to emailed questions, that his organization has been approached by “several private jet companies” looking to team with the club to transport the vaccinated.
On Friday, his organization announced that it would begin selling vaccines to people who were not previously members of the club for the price of 10,000 pounds per person, as long as individuals are 65 or older — or can prove that they have underlying health conditions. (Knightsbridge Circle will “ask for proof of this when booking,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.)
The vaccines will come as part of a three-week “membership package.” But that package will not include anything beyond the vaccine and transport to and from the airport and vaccination sites. Interested parties will have to book airfare and three weeks worth of accommodations themselves.
For Mr. McNeill’s clients, the real fun will come once the inoculations are done. Some of those who expect to be vaccinated in the U.A.E. have been looking to schedule specialized excursions after they are inoculated, he said, adding: “Desert safari seems to be the most popular.” (Members who travel to the U.A.E. will stay in the country for the required time before a second dose.)
Mr. McNeill also said that, given the uncertainty around staples of the spring calendar this year — the Royal Ascot, Monaco Grand Prix and Wimbledon — he expects his vaccinated clients to “head to the Mediterranean” earlier than usual. (Top destinations for the company’s clients, he said, included St.-Tropez, Mykonos, Ibiza and Bodrum.)
A leisure class of the newly vaccinated will mean that hotels, catering services and other businesses will be scrambling to employ bartenders, servers and other staff who are also vaccinated, the better to ensure the safety of all. A vaccination will begin to represent not only safety from the virus but also, for some, a leg up in the job market.
“Just like business partners require background checks for all of our professionals today, a lot of people are going to start wanting to say, ‘Hey, send vaccinated professionals as well,’” said Jamie Baxter, the chief executive of Qwick, an Arizona-based web platform that connects service workers with employers. He said that Qwick had already started thinking about how to verify which workers on its platform had been vaccinated.
‘Haves and Have-Nots’
Over 40 million doses of the vaccine have been administered worldwide, mostly to health care workers, first responders and older individuals, many of whom live in nursing homes. The vaccinated class is and will remain a relatively small portion of the population during the first half of 2021.
That makes it difficult for economists and businesses to anticipate when people will begin to gather in substantial numbers (in places where they haven’t been doing so already) and what the economic impact of such activity might be.
“As people are excited to become vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, they may be overestimating what that protection means,” said Jennifer Reich, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver who specializes in health policy. “It’s important that they calibrate their expectations and understand that their behavior after immunization still has to be focused on protecting people around them.”
But some private event spaces are gearing up for boom times in the spring and summer all the same. Peerspace, a commercial space rental platform (think Airbnb for events and parties) said it is already seeing bookings for its 20,000 locations around the United States, starting in late May. (Jerry Nickelsburg, the director of the U.C.L.A. Anderson Forecast, which issues economic predictions at the opening of each year, said it is “a regulatory question, how soon will those kinds of larger event spaces become available.”)
Eric Shoup, the company’s chief executive, said he was interested to see whether cities and states would make special allowances for those who had been inoculated, especially once a significant portion of the population was vaccinated.
“There are going to be the haves and have-nots, if you will,” he said.
Matt Bendett, Peerspace’s head of operations and strategy, wondered whether one’s vaccination status would be available to share through an app like Apple Wallet. (According to Bloomberg, interest in such applications — essentially, passports that would show proof of immunization — has surged.)
“If that’s something that becomes accepted and is not considered a privacy violation of some sort, or we start to see governments kind of changing their tune on how people can use that as verification, I certainly think that’s something we could look at how we would leverage,” he said.
Doctors who have been on the terrible front line of the crisis have, through the fact of their exposure, had a preview of the social world that some who are vaccinated could return to fairly soon. Dr. Alex Tran is an emergency medicine resident physician at Mount Sinai and Elmhurst Hospitals in New York City, where he has worked throughout the pandemic. As of this month, he is fully vaccinated.
Given that he and his peers developed antibodies when they were exposed to the virus at the beginning of the crisis, he said, they had not been particularly worried about hanging out with one another. With the vaccine, though, he plans to travel across the country to California to see his parents for the first time in a year.
“What I’m waiting for is actually that C.D.C. card that they’re giving out being accepted as a method of entry, whether that be for flights or for restaurants, like indoor dining or whatever it may be,” he said, referring to the verification card that those who are vaccinated receive.
“I could see a situation where a club makes it their official policy that you need to show your vaccine card,” Dr. Tran added. “But I think that’s just going to open the way up to forged vaccine cards. There’s going to be another market there.”
Already, health care workers are finding that vaccination comes with some small perks. On Friday, the N.F.L. announced that a significant percentage of the crowd at Super Bowl LV in Tampa would be vaccinated health care workers, who will receive free tickets. (How large venues will determine who has been vaccinated is still a contentious subject.)
Dr. Tran also expects vaccination status to become a draw on dating apps. He mentioned that a vaccinated friend updated his dating profile on one of the apps to say “Dating me is like dating a golden retriever … who’s been vaccinated,” and that it had already attracted a good amount of attention.
The ‘Hottest Thing’ in Dating
Dating app companies confirmed that vaccination has become a hot topic on their platforms. On Tinder, vaccine mentions in user bios rose 258 percent between September and December. “Those who have gotten the vaccine are using their status as a way to spark conversation with potential matches about their experience,” Dana Balch, a Tinder spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
On OkCupid, those who indicate that they have already received the vaccine are being liked at double the rate of users who say that they are not interested in getting the vaccine, according to a spokesman for the app, Michael Kaye.
“Basically, getting the vaccine is the hottest thing you could be doing on a dating app right now,” Mr. Kaye said, adding, “What a world we’re living in. …”
And social media communities for the newly vaccinated (and those interested in being newly vaccinated) have quickly been established. One subreddit, r/Covid19VaccineRats, was created last month by Jamal Fares, a humanitarian aid worker in Beirut, where the vaccination has not yet begun. Mr. Fares said he started the group to combat rumors and misinformation about the vaccine. Over time, he expected it to become a social hub where people might read tales from and about the happily inoculated.
“They will start going out, they will start socially interacting, and I presume they’ll start sharing those experiences with others,” he said of the subreddit’s vaccinated members.
Dr. Reich, the sociologist at the University of Colorado-Denver, said that she was concerned that government officials would enable irresponsible activity by the newly vaccinated. She urged even those who had been vaccinated to restrain themselves until the protection granted by immunization was better understood — or that protection was more widespread — in order to stave off worst case scenarios.
“People are going to feel betrayed if they learn later that they thought they were protected,” she said. “And they killed their grandparents.”