Why don’t NYC airports require proof of vaccination? It’s complicated. 

Nov 2, 2021

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Two weeks ago, I asked why restaurants and lounges in New York’s two largest airports aren’t enforcing the city’s vaccine mandate that went into effect on Sept. 13.

According to the city’s Key to NYC program, anyone 12 years or older dining indoors, using a gym or attending indoor entertainment venues in one of New York’s five boroughs must present a valid vaccination certificate.

While compliance with the new mandate has been nearly 100% in my experience — I’ve been asked to provide my vaccination card before entering any restaurant, comedy show or fitness class I’ve taken in New York City —  there’s one place that’s seemingly adhering to the city’s rule: the airport.

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Throughout my (and my colleagues’) numerous visits to both LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airports — both of which are located in the New York City borough of Queens — our vaccination cards haven’t been checked in food courts, restaurants or lounges.

Food selection in Delta’s LGA Sky Club (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

As it turns out, there are some interesting nuances at play keeping the vaccination mandate out of New York’s airports.

For one, TPG has since learned that city doesn’t actually oversee the Key to NYC program in the region’s airports. That’s according to a City Hall official who told TPG on Oct. 22 that the city’s airports are “technically in the Port Authority’s jurisdiction.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey oversees and manages the region’s airports, including JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. Though the airports fall under the agency’s jurisdiction, they should still theoretically be required to follow the mayor’s order.

According to the city’s rule, any New York City establishment which receives a grade from the Health Department for its cleanliness and hygiene that also offers indoor dining or beverage service must comply with the vaccine mandate. On the city’s dedicated webpage, there’s no mention of an exception for airport concessionaires. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — other large places of gathering, including “hotels, colleges and universities and malls” are required to enforce the mandate.

During the press conference following the agency’s monthly board meeting on Oct. 21, Rick Cotton, the agency’s executive director, offered three reasons why the mandate isn’t currently being applied at the two largest New York airports under his purview.

Cotton mentioned that “the airports are quite unique in terms of their physical infrastructure. They range from floor-to-ceiling windows and ceiling heights, 50, 60 feet and above.” His first point was seemingly that it’s safer to eat indoors in an airport than say a crowded New York City restaurant due to the larger, more spacious building.

Food court at LGA’s new Terminal B (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

He continued to explain that the nuances of enforcing such a mandate would be incredibly difficult. “There are grab-and-go facilities, each concession has a very different physical infrastructure,” he said. Airports offer many different types of indoor dining options, from grab-and-go counters to bars to membership-only airline lounges.

Grab-and-go establishments aren’t required to enforce the city’s vaccine mandate, but if a traveler picked up a pizza and started eating it at the nearby food court, he or she would then need to present a vaccine certificate according to the city’s rule — a logistical challenge for the concessionaire and the Port Authority.

As for enforcing the mandate, Cotton mentioned that “we have provided the relevant regulations to each of the concessions, and it is an individual matter in terms of how those regulations should be applied.” With this point, Cotton deflected the enforcement responsibility onto the individual restaurants and lounges.

Related: Why aren’t airport lounges and restaurants in New York enforcing the city’s vaccine mandate?

In a follow-up statement to TPG on Oct. 28, Port Authority Chief of Communications Ben Branham wrote that the agency’s airports have already implemented a host of safety measures. It stopped short of mentioning the city’s vaccine mandate or why it wasn’t being enforced by the agency.

The Port Authority is in regular contact with state and local health authorities to adhere to best practices that places Port Authority airports among the most stringent in the country in ensuring the health and safety of passengers and employees. The abundance of safety measures in place include mask requirements, air filtration, social distancing and enhanced cleaning procedures – measures that have earned “STAR Accreditation” from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council, the gold standard for infectious disease prevention in public facilities. Port Authority airports have also earned “Airport Health Accreditation” from Airports Council International.  We believe our airports are among only a handful in the world that have earned both of these accreditations.

As we’ve since learned, the buck stops with the Port Authority and the individual concessionaires in terms of implementing the city’s vaccine mandate in applicable areas of the region’s airports.

For now, you can leave your vaccine card in your wallet when you’re passing through the city’s two major airports. Whether that ultimately changes is anyone’s guess.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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