Letters to the Editor • Opinion
Is the pandemic under control? Yes. Over? No.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beer, bouquets and free rounds at a gun range: How local governments promote vaccines

Volunteer Todd Hinden hands out cannabis incentives to anyone who can prove they've received a coronavirus vaccine, part of an April 20 “Joints for Jabs” event to promote inoculation in New York City. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Booze, bud, bouquets and a Nissan Altima. New York’s hottest club, this is not. Rather, it represents just part of the growing bounty available to those who sign up to get vaccinated against the coronavirus as the country looks anxiously toward a post-pandemic future.

With cities and states charting a declining demand for doses, some have turned to these audacious, outlandish and perhaps quixotic incentives to lure in vaccine apathetes. Public health officials, desperate to inoculate as many people as possible, knew this moment would come. Those most eager and able have largely been vaccinated. Now, the hard part: Getting shots into the arms of the people for whom hesitancy, priority or access are the biggest barriers.

“We always knew we were going to get to this point, where the supply would eventually exceed demand,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the vaccine development center VIDO-InterVac. “Then we’d have to switch to say: Okay, what do we have to do now to convince you to get a vaccine?”

Some governments have followed that question to unexpected places, a strategy shift that is taking place while U.S. leaders reassess the state of the national vaccination campaign. More than 148 million Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, but the pace has slowed over the past three weeks.

President Biden this week announced a new phase in the inoculation effort, pledging to make it “easier than ever” to get a shot. The White House has told states that vaccine doses they choose not to order will become available to other states — a use-it-or-lose-it policy meant to deliver more doses to the places that want them most.

Cue the giveaways.

Anticipating this new chapter, governors and local leaders began brainstorming. In some places — including West Virginia and Maryland — officials decided to give out cash. But in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy’s staff came up with an idea that evokes a season spent imbibing on the state’s boardwalks and beaches: a chaser for every shot.

The “Shot and a Beer” program Murphy (D) announced this week — part of “Operation Jersey Summer” — is a partnership with local breweries that will offer a free beer to any state resident who gets their first shot this month.

“We’re not turning our nose up at anything,” said Dan Bryan, a spokesman for the governor. “If something that’s a little silly and a little fun ultimately gets people through the door and gets shots in arms, then it’s worth it.”

Washington, is planning a similar drive, set for Thursday at the Kennedy Center, where residents can get a free drink with their Johnson & Johnson jab.

White House will make unordered vaccine supply available to other states

Officials in both New Jersey and the District said the efforts are targeting younger populations — those who may want to get their shot, but who are not prioritizing vaccinations.

John Falcicchio, D.C.'s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said it is critical to “reach young people who have been a bit — I don’t even know if it’s hesitant, but — not as anxious to get vaccinated.”

As it considers other vaccine incentives, Falcicchio said the District also is thinking about a gender gap in vaccination progress: Data has shown women have been more willing to get their vaccines than men.

Men lag behind women in coronavirus vaccinations, especially in Black communities

On Saturday, to mark the eve of Mother’s Day, the first 51 people at each of D.C.'s six walk-up vaccine sites will receive free flowers and plants, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced. All month long, sites will also ink temporary tattoos that read either “Vaxed for Mom” or “Vaxed for Dad."

Elsewhere, free drinks have proliferated. New Orleans establishments offered a shot for a shot. In Connecticut, where officials said in late April that 66 percent of the 18-and-older population had received one dose, the governor announced adults could get a free drink at certain restaurants during a two-week program this month — another push officials said was targeted toward the state’s young adults and to keep up vaccination momentum.

For teetotalers: Groups have convened the self-explanatory “Joints for Jabs.” DC Marijuana Justice spent months planning its April 20 event, where it counted dozens of volunteers at 30 vaccinations sites who gave away 4,200 joints.

In New York City, the AIDS activism group ACT UP NY has held two Joints for Jabs events and is planning another for the city’s third annual Queer Liberation March in late June. Brandon Cuicchi, an organizer with the group, said he’s in talks with the city’s health department about providing on-site vaccinations during future events.

“Gone are the days of sending people to an online portal where they spend an hour trying to get an appointment in a week,” he said. “We need to set up a vaccination model that intersects where people are hanging out and already going — in outdoor spaces, too.”

CDC says coronavirus could be under control this summer in U.S. if people get vaccinated and are careful

Although young people who remain open to vaccines are probably the easiest group to convince, resources would be better spent solving more intractable, systemic barriers to vaccines, such as a lack of transportation or an inability to get time off work, said Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health.

“The existing evidence suggests that incentives do work for some people to tip them over into, ‘Yes, let’s get vaccinated,’ ” Murray said.

But, she said, “Hesitancy doesn’t account for the huge number of people we still need to vaccinate. It’s more likely that there is a large number of people who are facing practical barriers. Some types of practical solutions would be more useful than more gimmicky things like a shot of alcohol.”

Local governments should be investing more in mobile vaccination programs, sites along accessible bus routes or clinics in the parking lot of an area’s largest employer, Murray said. Historically under-resourced communities — which also tend to be at greater risk for covid-19 — should be prioritized as the country rushes to reach Biden’s benchmark of 70 percent of adults with at least one dose by July 4, she said.

“It’s not just about the overall U.S. average; we really want every state to be above that threshold, every city, every community within that city,” Murray said. “We need to think about if we’re aiming to get that big nice shiny number, or if we’re aiming to really reduce hospitalizations and deaths.”

In some places, the vaccine incentives have become hyperlocal. In Randolph County, a rural patch of southern Illinois along the Mississippi River, officials recently announced a mobile vaccination site at a sprawling shooting and recreation complex. People who get vaccinated there will get 100 free targets for trap, skeet or sporting clay shooting, a state news release promised.

In Memphis, the offer is a chance to win a new car. People who get vaccinated can enter their names in a raffle, with the victor getting to choose from a range of rides that includes a Chevrolet Camaro and a Nissan Altima.

All these giveaways come weeks after private companies began offering perks for the vaccinated, including Krispy Kreme giving away a free doughnut to anyone showing proof of a shot and Budweiser offering to buy a round.

Mets, Yankees to offer tickets for vaccinations, separate sections for vaccinated fans

However, experts doubt that these offers will convince the people most adamantly opposed to the vaccine, especially those eschewing it for ideological reasons.

For Rasmussen, the strongest motivation is not drinkable, smokable or shootable — it’s not tangible. Instead, it’s a vision she has of some point in the future when enough people are vaccinated that new virus cases are suppressed, when people can stop wearing masks indoors and out. A return to “normal.”

She calls this “the biggest incentive of all.”