In the wake of federal mandates and high COVID-19 cases, more associations are considering imposing a vaccine requirement for in-person attendees. Here’s what you need to know about the legal considerations, verifying vaccination, and state bans.

With increases in COVID-19 cases, full federal approval of the Pfizer vaccine, and new federal vaccine mandates covering employees, more associations are considering adding a vaccine mandate to their in-person events.

“The trend absolutely tends to be in favor of requiring proof of vaccination,” said Jeff Tenenbaum, managing partner of Tenenbaum Law Group and an attorney specializing in nonprofit law. “A lot of this is being driven from the ground up, from the attendees or prospective attendees, who say, ‘Look, we want to come, but we want to feel comfortable that you have a vaccine mandate, and we want you to require proof of vaccination.’”

LEGAL OBLIGATIONS

Associations are within their legal rights to have a mandate.

“It is legally acceptable to require proof of vaccination as a precondition of conference attendance,” Tenenbaum said. “That being said, due to Title III of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, there is an obligation to make an exception when the event is being held in a place of public accommodation, and, specifically, a reasonable accommodation, for those that have a qualifying medical condition or disability that makes it risky or dangerous for them to get a COVID vaccination.”

However, this is something that is typically easy to accommodate. “What most associations are doing as the proposed reasonable accommodation is either allowing those individuals to present proof of a negative COVID test within either 48 or 72 hours prior to the start of the conference,” Tenenbaum said. “Or if the conference has a virtual component and people can participate virtually; that, in and of itself, has been offered up as a reasonable accommodation.”

Tenenbaum notes the federal Civil Rights Act, which does not apply to conference attendees, requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs that prevent them from being vaccinated. Some conferences are extending that exception to attendees as well.

“In the conference setting, while it’s not legally required, there seems to be a trend for a lot of associations with vaccine mandates to allow for both medical and religious exemptions,” he said.

HOW TO VERIFY VACCINATION

For many associations, checking for proof of vaccines may work fine for small events but prove challenging for larger ones. There are companies that can verify vaccination proof, and Tenenbaum recommends it, if it’s economically feasible.

“If you can afford to use companies such as Clear to verify the proof of vaccination, you should,” Tenenbaum said. “It’s so much safer, more reliable, and takes the burden off of your staff. Attendees can be pre-cleared, it will cut down lines for entry to the conference, and it can mitigate liability risk for the association.”

HIMSS, a medical association that held HIMSS21 Global Conference in August, had a vaccine requirement for its 20,000 attendees and used outside companies for verification. Anthony Maggiore, director of meeting services for HIMSS, spoke at PCMA’s recent Vaccine Spotlight webinar about the benefits of outsourcing this.

“It was important to us as an organization that we were not the keepers of any of our attendees’ or exhibitors’ health data or any of that information,” Maggiore said. “We wanted to make sure we had a third party doing all of the verification. I don’t think anyone wants that information housed within the association.”

Unfortunately, the increase in events requiring vaccination proof has made booking a verification company harder. Maggiore urged associations interested in implementing a vaccine requirement to prepare now.

“You need to start the conversations,” he said. “You need to start the RFP processes, so that you can get some suppliers lined up and make sure that you’re not going to be left empty-handed when it comes to trying to service your show, for whatever your right of entry requirements are going to be.”

VACCINATION PROOF BANS

One issue that continues to be a problem when it comes to COVID-19 protocols is that every state has different rules. Tenenbaum said five states—Florida, Texas, North Dakota, Iowa, and Alabama—ban businesses in the state from requiring proof of vaccination as a precondition of entering the business. However, you may still be able to require vaccination if your meeting is being held in one of those states.

“What we’ve seen is the hotel lawyers in these states seem to be advising their hotel clients that, while the hotel itself can’t require proof of vaccination as a precondition of walking into the hotel, an association that is holding a conference at the hotel or convention center in those states can impose that requirement because they are not the business,” Tenenbaum said. “They are just renting the space.”

RASHEEDA CHILDRESS

Rasheeda Childress is a senior editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips. MORE »