Unvaccinated people are eager to travel again. But more and more, the rules make that harder.
Travelers are increasingly required to show proof of vaccination before they can cruise, book group tours, avoid quarantines, or vacation to tropical islands. Beyond that, vaccines are needed for everyday activities including attending some universities, returning to the workplace or eating in restaurants.
More cities and companies — from Paris to New York, from Disney to Fox Corp. — are issuing vaccine requirements of one sort or another, paving the way for others to follow.
The new rules fall short of true mandates, since people can often avoid them by submitting to rigorous testing and safety protocols. But the “near-mandates,” as they are being called, have the practical effect of making life logistically difficult for some unvaccinated people.
Vaccine-based rules have more support in Europe, but Americans are divided over them. The latest CNBC All-America Economic Survey found 49% favoring mandates and 46% opposing them. Views were sharply divided by age and political affiliation, with nearly 80% of unvaccinated people against them.
CNBC interviewed nearly a dozen unvaccinated travelers. A complex picture of their views emerged, highlighting fears, frustrations and an indifference toward vaccines and the restrictions that require them.
Waiting it out
Several people who oppose mandatory vaccines said they resent being grouped with so-called “anti-vaxxers.” Among them was a mental health counselor from the U.S. South, who asked not to be named due to her occupation.
She said she is vaccinated against other diseases, and her children are as well. “I’m not anti-vaccine at all,” she said.
But she’s “against these rushed vaccines,” referring to the ones designed to combat Covid.
She travels monthly and fears catching the virus. Vaccine-based restrictions haven’t impeded her ability to travel, but she’s concerned they could, especially since her spouse is European. She said Covid tests “make more sense” — an argument which gained traction in The Atlantic last week — and are more equitable for those who can’t or won’t vaccinate.
“I will continue to wait it out and hope that over time a less desperate and more logical approach will arise,” she said. “When and if these vaccines are proven safe, I will get one.”
Singaporean Ng Syn Jae agrees. Singapore is on target to have 80% of its population vaccinated by next month, but the 27-year-old said he won’t be among them.
Ng said he feels the vaccines being administered in Singapore — from Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna — are still in “an experimental stage.” He said he’s worried about possible long-term negative side effects, a fear expressed by others who spoke to CNBC.
The World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other health agencies around the world do not share those worries. They’ve said repeatedly that approved vaccines, including those from Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna, are safe and effective against Covid-19 and existing variants.
Covid vaccines have been administered in 199 countries around the world with 30% of the global population having received at least one shot, according to the Our World in Data project at The University of Oxford.
Travel mandates likely would encourage Ng to get vaccinated, he said, though he feels they are unethical. He said he would likely opt for the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine because “the technology the vaccine uses is older” than the newer mRNA vaccines.
He said he will vaccinate “when the vaccine companies show they have done all the proper safety tests —and then, I might wait even longer.”
Frustrated, but not angry
Bert Valdez, a professional surfer living in Hawaii, isn’t vaccinated and doesn’t plan to be.
“It’s a drug, and we were always told not to do drugs,” he said.
His travel experience is wide — coastal locations including Tahiti, Fiji, Taiwan, Mexico and Costa Rica. He acknowledged that his decision not to get vaccinated will probably limit his ability to compete and earn money in the future.
Valdez said he’s frustrated, but not angry, about vaccine-based travel restrictions, which he said will be short-lived because the “people in power won’t be much longer,” both in the United States and abroad. He did not elaborate on how or why this global transition of power would occur.
Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, he said he believes vaccinated people are spreading the Covid variants while unvaccinated people take the blame.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unvaccinated people are much more likely to contract and transmit the virus that causes Covid-19, including the highly contagious delta variant.
As for the pandemic itself, Valdez said he laments how anger is dividing families and friends. He’s less worried about himself, but more for his three daughters.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” he said. “This is not going to kill me.”
Fearing the vaccine more than the virus
Beegy Morter lives in Dallas and described herself as a practitioner of “energy medicine.” She isn’t happy about vaccine-based travel restrictions. She said she can’t take vaccines because she’s allergic to a preservative they contain.
“I do feel discriminated” against, the 77-year-old told CNBC. “I’m not anti-vaxx — I’ve just done the research.”
Morter also said she has trouble wearing masks. They make her dizzy, so she avoids stores that require them.
She’s been given the “cold shoulder” by people who discover she’s unvaccinated, she said. She described encounters which mirror reports of rising resentment and hostility toward the unvaccinated.
Even without her allergy, Morter said she still wouldn’t get vaccinated. For one thing, she doesn’t fear getting Covid, she said.
“The survival rate of catching Covid is so good,” she said. “I would rather take my chances … than take the vaccine.”
U.S. officials have repeatedly contradicted views like hers about the risk Covid poses toward the unvaccinated. The vast majority of Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths in the United States are now occurring among unvaccinated people.
Yet Morter isn’t alone. A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows 53% of unvaccinated adults in the United States fear the vaccines more than the disease itself.
Unvaccinated people are also less worried about getting “seriously sick” from Covid (73%) than vaccinated people (61%), according to the report.
Dan Morris of Dunedin, Florida, said his plans to visit Australia this year are looking “extremely unlikely.”
He understands not getting vaccinated won’t help, since “there’s talk of [Australian authorities] not being willing to take unvaccinated people in the future” too.
Morris said he has “a range of reasons” for his decision, including having “a messed-up immune system” due to Crohn’s Disease, and concerns that mutations are making the vaccines less effective.
When asked if that was a circular argument — i.e., refusing vaccines because they may not be as effective against variants which, in turn, are more likely to develop if people refuse the vaccines — Morris said:
“Yes, if it is true that mutations are more likely or mostly occurring in the unvaccinated, then ‘the vaccines are continuing to mutate’ is not a great argument … I would be contributing to the problem. However, I think the mutations are going to come whether I vax or not.”
The WHO has repeatedly said that Covid-19 vaccines are safe and life-saving. “One of the best ways of guarding against new variants is to continue… rolling out vaccines,” according to the WHO’s website.
In the meantime, Morris said he’s fine to wait years for long-term studies to be published. As to whether he would vaccinate to visit Australia, he isn’t budging.
“Tougher enforcement and restrictions make me less likely to be vaccinated in the future,” he said. “I’m stubborn!”
Bryan Hale, a 54-year-old self-employed coach from Phoenix, isn’t vaccinated. But he isn’t averse to the idea either.
“I’m more than willing to get vaccinated if it becomes a serious issue or need,” he said. “I’ve just been busy.”
His vaccination status has resulted in backlash from his family, some of whom have refused to see him until he is immunized, he said.
Though studies indicate that unvaccinated people are less likely to wear masks or practice social distancing, Hale said he does both, especially since he travels weekly by car in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico.
“I’m really not bothered at all by the various restrictions and protocols that have been put in place for travelers,” he said, adding that he feels the government and society at large are “doing the best they can to deal with an unpredictable, complex and serious challenge.”
Hale said he respects the rights of individuals to choose to vaccinate, as well as businesses to implement rules for their organizations.
Deciding to vaccinate
Travel restrictions are coaxing people like Lois Lindsey over the line. The retired accountant from Houston got vaccinated last week solely to safeguard her upcoming vacation plans, she said.
“I don’t want to take the vaccine but feel forced to do so since I will be taking a trip to Kentucky in October and a cruise in January,” she said. “I don’t want to … pay more or be delayed at the airport if I’m not vaccinated.”
According to a Time/Harris poll conducted in March, more than half (52%) of vaccinated respondents indicated their decision was influenced at least in part by the desire to travel.
Lindsey’s cruise on Carnival Cruise Line requires all passengers aged 12 and older to be vaccinated. Exemptions are available, but unvaccinated travelers have to pay a $150 surcharge, submit to additional Covid tests, buy travel insurance (if leaving from Florida or Texas) and forgo “independent sightseeing in ports of call,” according to the company’s website.
Lindsey says she feels there’s “conflicting information floating around” about who is spreading Covid, the effectiveness of masks, and whether vaccines protect against variants. She gets her news from CNN, Fox News, NBC News and talk radio, she said.
“If I could make my own decision, I would put my life in God’s hands,” said Lindsey.
A 50-year-old woman who works in New York’s financial sector and who did not wish to be identified told CNBC she’s considering getting vaccinated due to an upcoming trip to Hawaii.
Vaccinations aren’t required to enter the state, but she wants to avoid “any surprises” during the trip. Her travel companion is also pressing her to get vaccinated, which she feels she will likely do “for travel and for my parents … to feel safer.”
She is currently working virtually from New Jersey, which lets her take a wait-and-see approach on vaccines. If called back into her New York office, “I would go forward with the vaccine,” she said.
‘Incredibly stubborn and foolish’
After a mild bout with Covid left her with a lingering cough for 10 months, Monica McLary, 45, decided to get vaccinated. She was initially hesitant, but the desire to travel with fewer restrictions spurred her to act.
“I want freedom to travel, I don’t want to get Covid again and I want to know that others cannot get the virus from me,” she told CNBC. “I feel like it’s everyone’s civic duty and find myself angered by those that continue to refuse based on misinformation.”
Since the pandemic started, the part-time Pilates instructor and real estate agent from Atlanta has traveled to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks (“oblivious to the pandemic with no rules or regulations”), Boston and Nantucket, Massachusetts (“so many restrictions”); Jackson Hole, Wyoming (“no masks required”); and Louisville to watch the Kentucky Derby (“we flew privately so that was the best”), among other places.
McLary persuaded her two teenage sons to get vaccinated so they could avoid masks and travel restrictions. Problems began, she said, when unvaccinated people stopped wearing masks too. Now Covid hospitalizations are rising again in Georgia and other U.S. states with low vaccination rates.
“I am a conservative, voted for Trump,” she said, “but these people are incredibly stubborn and foolish.”
An article in the Economist last week indicated that the single greatest predictor of whether an American has been vaccinated is who they voted for in the last U.S. presidential election.
“I hope [Trump] doesn’t run again, and I hope more businesses — airlines included — and schools mandate vaccines,” McLary said.
“It is not about politics, but about public safety,” she said. “We are all in this together.”