Connecting state and local government leaders
Out-of-towners looking for shots are unintentionally lifting local economies after a tough year.
At 8 a.m. on February 14, the very minute New York made me eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, I fired up my laptop and started looking for a shot. Over the course of five torturous minutes, I blasted my way through a laggy eligibility screener, waited for the confirmation page to unfreeze, and finally landed on the portal listing the state’s mass-vaccination sites. “Appointments available,” promised the Westchester County Center, the one closest to my house.
I clicked to sign up, but it was too late. Within 45 seconds, I moved on to Manhattan’s Javits Center, where I seemed to have nabbed an appointment but then was met with an error screen. I worked my way down the list of sites and continued to strike out. Long Island? Nothing. Albany? Nope. Binghamton? Nada. After 30 minutes of clicking, refreshing, and waiting, I finally snatched a slot: February 26, at 4:30 p.m., in Plattsburgh … a four-and-a-half-hour drive from where I live.
Yes, I am a vaccine tourist, one of at least hundreds of thousands of Americans who have traveled beyond their community or region to get a coveted shot. Vaccine tourism is a broad phenomenon that entails both residents driving to different parts of their state and, say, Californians flying to Florida. In some cases, like mine, this is explicitly allowed: New York’s Plattsburgh site is open to any state resident. But in other cases, it is forbidden. That’s because vaccine tourists have been blamed for worsening the pandemic’s already uneven toll. The people who can afford to take time off from work and fly or drive many hours for a shot are more likely to be well-off, in theory taking doses that would otherwise have gone to more vulnerable local residents.
Knowing that, I felt guilty driving north to Plattsburgh, even though I have a qualifying health condition. When I entered the vaccination center, I was seriously questioning my judgment. The nurse administering my shot asked where I was from, and I responded, sheepishly, “Westchester County.” What she said next surprised me. “I actually don’t mind that so many people are coming here for vaccines,” she told me. “It’s been good for the economy.” It turns out that for at least a few rural areas with mass-injection sites, the main result of vaccine tourism has not been out-of-towners stealing doses. It’s been a much-needed economic boost.
Plattsburgh, nestled along Lake Champlain, is so far from New York City that Quebec is just 25 minutes away. That means when I went there twice, once for the first dose and again for the second, I had little choice but to stay overnight—and spend a lot more money than expected. During just one of the trips, I picked up food from Olive Ridley’s Taphouse & Grill, visited a pharmacy, and shopped for groceries at Cumberland Bay Market to make dinner at my Airbnb. I even did some COVID-cautious sightseeing. Rather than driving back to Westchester the next day, I took a ferry from Plattsburgh to Vermont to see the mountains that line each side of the lake.
Locals in Plattsburgh told me that they’ve seen a modest bump in commerce since the inoculation site opened in mid-January, much of which they suspect is coming from vaccine tourists spending the night. “It has made a difference,” says Raj Patel, the manager of Golden Gate Lodging, a motel in the city. “The extra 10, 20 percent boost in revenue has been due to them.” My Airbnb host during the second trip told me that, since the Plattsburgh site started giving out shots, more than half of her bookings had come from people visiting town to get a vaccine.
Other small cities and towns home to mass-vaccination sites told me they’ve seen significant spikes in commercial activity. Habersham County, a rural part of Georgia that’s around 90 miles from Atlanta, has seen an economic bump in many of its restaurants, stores, and hotels since a site opened in Clarkesville in late February. “Having the vaccination site here has definitely refueled the economy after a really tough year,” says Mary Beth Horton, the president of the county’s chamber of commerce.
The local Hampton Inn has gone from being 60 to 70 percent booked to operating at full capacity, an increase driven partly by vaccine tourists and partly by the National Guard, which has booked multiple rooms for members staffing the vaccine site. Tammie Fleming, a co-owner of the Crossroads Cafe, told me that orders at her restaurant have easily doubled thanks to both vaccine visitors and a contract to feed the site’s workers. She’s been able to increase hours for her employees because of all the new business.
For Quincy, Illinois, hosting a mass-vaccination site is helping revive what had been, pre-pandemic, a strong tourism industry. The city of 40,000, about five hours from Chicago, typically hosts all sorts of visitors in a normal year: road-trippers following the national scenic byway along the Mississippi River, Abraham Lincoln enthusiasts mapping the 16th president’s travels (he and Stephen Douglas held a debate in the city in 1858), and Mormons tracing their faith’s westward migration. When the virus hit, many of these guests stopped coming to town, causing hotel tax revenues to plunge by more than 30 percent and dealing a blow to the city’s restaurant scene. But since the Quincy mass-vaccination site opened to all of Illinois in March, the city has drawn more than 2,000 tourists each week from outside the region, many from the Chicago area. “It’s definitely something that we’re encouraged by,” Holly Cain, the director of the Quincy Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, told me.
The tourists seem to be helping reverse some of the city’s economic losses. Teri Zanger, the general manager of the local Quality Inn, told me the hotel had laid off employees at the beginning of the pandemic, but now vaccine tourists have increased bookings by roughly 25 percent, filling every available room. The hotel is now in the process of hiring again. Lindsey Schmidt, a staffer at Winkings Market, said that the restaurant and grocery store was also seeing a surge in out-of-town customers. The boost has been so significant that the store seems to be doing better business now than it was before the pandemic. “If you know the restaurant industry, you know the winters are tough. Everything drops down,” Schmidt told me. “But we’ve been having a summer in the winter.”
These places can all use the additional dollars. Over the past four decades, wealth in America has flowed to a handful of already-rich metropolitan areas, leaving other parts of the country behind. Quincy’s population has declined since 1970, and, as in Plattsburgh and Habersham, its median income is below the national average. In some cities hosting mass-vaccination sites, such as Kennewick, Washington, business leaders told me they aren’t aware of any economic benefits. Regardless, economics isn’t everything: If the boost in commerce was coming at the expense of locals getting their shots, that would be a bad trade-off.
But while lots of rural Americans, particularly in areas without pharmacies, are genuinely struggling to get jabbed, there haven’t been any clear downsides to vaccine tourism for some communities. The share of vaccinated residents in the counties including and surrounding Plattsburgh exceeds the statewide average. Adams County, home to Quincy, has the highest percentage of fully inoculated residents of any county in Illinois. Three of the four neighboring counties also have an above-average share. “It’s been a win-win for us,” Kyle Moore, Quincy’s mayor, told me. “We know that the state can get back on its feet quicker the more people who are vaccinated, and if we can play a part in that, we’re happy to do it.”
Still, vaccine tourism does not generally help underserved communities access shots—and it is those communities who need them most. Last week, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of 40 states found that 25 percent of all white people have received at least one vaccine dose, compared with just 15 percent of Black people and 13 percent of Latinos. There are many factors underlying this disparity, but one problem is access to transit: People of color are roughly twice as likely as white people to live in households without cars, making it more difficult for them to travel beyond where they live for doses.
Outlawing all vaccine tourism won’t solve that problem, and “in the limited situation where certain parts of a state have more doses than they have arms, allowing people from other parts of the state to go there can improve efficiency,” says Glenn Cohen, a bioethicist at Harvard Law School who studies medical tourism. Ultimately, the solution is to ensure that the U.S. has enough vaccine doses so that anyone who wants one can quickly get one close to home. In the not-too-distant future, that should be possible. The pace of vaccinations is picking up, and the Biden administration is projecting that the U.S. will have a vaccine surplus by mid-May, at which point getting the shot should no longer require a nine-hour round trip, twice.
But for now, places like Plattsburgh will continue to draw visitors looking for shots. As I was about to leave the city for the last time, my Airbnb host sent me a message. Someone had just booked her place, and they were also coming to town to get the vaccine.
Daniel Block is executive editor of Washington Monthly.