Updated at 5:55 p.m. ET on May 14, 2021.
Imagine a Fourth of July 2021 celebration at the White House. America has reached its vaccination goals. A jubilant President Joe Biden rips off his mask, douses it in lighter fluid, and tosses it on a charcoal grill, where it burns for the news cameras. Late afternoon turns to early evening, with the promise of fireworks ahead, but before then, Anthony Fauci, outfitted in goggles and a vintage one-piece, red-white-and-blue-striped bathing suit, climbs into a dunk tank filled with Bud Light. He’s making good on a promise to get dunked on Independence Day if, and only if, 75 percent of Americans have received at least one COVID-19 shot. Joe Rogan strides out, a big bucket of baseballs in hand.
Meanwhile, in all 50 states, free Fourth of July concerts featuring the biggest acts in the nation are playing in front of 100 percent–vaccinated crowds; many got jabs just so they could attend. Beyoncé slays in Atlanta. Luke Combs rocks Nashville. Bad Bunny plays San Juan.
Roughly 43 percent of American adults have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but demand for shots is already falling, with some states cutting back on the number of doses that they are requesting for their residents.*
Most of the official responses to this problem have been tepid. “Clergy can play a great role as well as your own family doc,” Fauci told an interviewer this week, “because most people really trust a doctor that’s been taking care of their family for a long time.” California is running public-service announcements.
Don’t blame the public-health officials. They are who they are. But with every passing day, their instincts will yield diminishing returns: The Americans they are best suited to reach have already been vaccinated. Cold, hard cash would sway some of the rest. In a UCLA survey, a third of unvaccinated Americans said they would be more likely to get a shot for $100. That’s a bargain.
And in my estimation, a cash-for-shots program would be powerfully complemented by a three-legged stool of free beer, free bacon, and free lottery tickets in exchange for getting two shots of Pfizer or Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson one-shot. Don’t woo Americans with mere common sense or cash, but with spectacle.
This approach will horrify many a county-health official. I beg them to wring their hands. My targets will revel in whatever irks these bureaucrats, because they view them as smarmy scolds. “Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance,” Tom Scocca wrote in a 2013 Gawker essay. “Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.” America needs to reach the subset of its residents who’ve found pandemic messaging to be off-puttingly smarmy.
A small experiment in free beer is already showing promise. In Buffalo, New York, a local brewery offered a pint to anyone who came in for a first shot and ultimately distributed vaccines to more people in a single day than all of the Erie County clinics had, combined, the prior week. If I have any criticism of the effort, it’s the open enthusiasm of the public-health officials. Grudging acquiescence might be more effective.
The typical American has a sense that public-health types want them to eat less salty, fatty processed meat. How powerful, then, if the message from the most dour public-health bureaucrat in each city was “I’m loath to think of you eating a Baconator at Wendy’s, but getting a COVID-19 vaccine is so important that we’ll give you a coupon for a free one if you get your jab before July 4.”
At the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, customers weighing more than 350 pounds eat free and menu items include the Octuple Bypass Burger, which has almost 20,000 calories.** If I were the face of public health in Clark County, I’d be on the local evening news with a representative of the Heart Attack Grill telling him that his establishment embodies everything I find repellent ... but that if Vegas gets to 85 percent vaccinated, I’ll order and eat the Octuple Bypass.
Free lottery tickets may hold the most promise of all. Vaccine hesitancy and lottery enthusiasm are two sides of the same disregard for statistics. How better to reach people unswayed by expert advice on what is statistically likely to serve their interests than to offer a minuscule chance at $100 million? Forty-five states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, already run lotteries. Printing more tickets is basically free. And unlike every other state-lottery initiative, giving free tickets for getting vaccinated would actually leave most participants better off.
In fact, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is putting this idea into practice: This week he announced a spate of million-dollar lottery drawings for anyone in the state who has received at least one vaccine dose. Winners should be feted to spark interest in another round.
The pandemic has been a dismal slog. For many, a more appealing message than “Get the vaccine to protect your neighbors” is “We’re almost there—get this vaccine and you can have the biggest party in a generation.” And no one throwing a party entrusts planning to public-health officials. Populist politicians need to step up.
Cash. Beer. Bacon. Lottery tickets. And the promise of Fauci in the dunk tank. That’s all it would take. I can see it so clearly. Pandemic Victory Day would be both a celebration and a spur to additional shots, harnessing vulgar populism to help America surprise the world with its 90-plus percent vaccination rate, even as it exports greater numbers of doses daily to poorer countries in need of help.
By embracing that which they find distasteful, elites can prove that they aren’t just virtue signaling. This really matters.
*This article previously misstated that 43 percent of all Americans have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, 43 percent of American adults have yet to receive a shot.
**This article mistakenly referred to the Octuple Bypass Burger as the Quintuple Bypass Burger.