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COVID-19 vaccines could become mandatory. Here’s how it might work.

After a COVID-19 vaccine is available, you may need to get inoculated to go to the office, attend a sporting event, or even get a seat at a restaurant.

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A nurse prepares to give a patient a vaccine on August 16, 2020.

You walk toward the arena, ready for a big game, tickets in hand. But what you see is a long line wrapping around the corner of the building and a bottleneck at the entrance as people search their pockets and purses for a small piece of paper. To be cleared to enter, you’ll also need that document—proof that you’ve received a COVID-19 vaccination.

This is the future as some experts see it: a world in which you’ll need to show you’ve been inoculated against the novel coronavirus to attend a sports game, get a manicure, go to work, or hop on a train.

“We’re not going to get to the point where the vaccine police break down your door to vaccinate you,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University’s School of Medicine. But he and several other health policy experts envision vaccine mandates could be instituted and enforced by local governments or employers—similar to the current vaccine requirements for school-age children, military personnel, and hospital workers.

In the United States, most vaccine mandates come from the government. The...

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