Photo shows someone showing their vaccine card to get free tokens at Up-Down.
A customer shows their vaccine card in exchange for free tokens at Up-Down. Photo illustration by Zachary Linhares/The Beacon

David Hayden, communications manager for Up-Down in Kansas City, was in the waiting room after getting his COVID-19 vaccination when the idea hit him: Offer vaccinated customers something for free.

“We’ve all been in this kind of collective experience together for a year plus, and you get the vaccine and kind of expect something more,” he said. “There’s no parade, there’s no fireworks, nothing.”

A vaccine incentive program gives people a place to celebrate after getting vaccinated and recognizes that they have done something good for their community, Hayden said.

“When I took it to the owners, I wasn’t sure how they would respond because it’s been a rough year, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s give away some stuff,’” he said. “It was an immediate yes, because it was the right thing to do.”

We’ve all been in this kind of collective experience together for a year plus, and you get the vaccine and kind of expect something more.

David hayden, communications manager for up-down

So in March, Up-Down, a chain of arcade bars, started a promotion giving 20 free arcade machine tokens to anyone who shows their vaccine card within three weeks of getting fully vaccinated. So far, between 300 and 400 customers have taken advantage of the promotion in Kansas City, Hayden said.

Up-Down is part of a new trend where governments and businesses are offering benefits like money, beer and doughnuts to people who get vaccinated, especially as vaccination rates slow. The average daily vaccination rate has fallen more than 50% from its peak in early April. Nearly 39% of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated. The hope is to influence more people to get the shots to increase overall immunity to COVID-19.

“If we can cause one person to go out and get the vaccine because of this (vaccine incentive) program, that would be awesome,” Hayden said.

Why we need incentives to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine not only protects the person getting the shot but helps prevent spreading the virus to others.

At the same time, it can be inconvenient and personally costly to take time off work to get a shot, which can also have undesirable side effects. For some, the costs outweigh the benefits. The wider social benefits don’t always motivate people, which was evident when it came to wearing masks.

“The reason we need incentives is because individuals often make decisions only on the private benefits,” said David Slusky, economics professor at the University of Kansas. “If we were to pay them, we could adjust it so now the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Health benefits alone may not motivate people in the short term. 

But cash does. A study looking at the sleep habits of college students found they were 19% more likely to sleep the recommended number of hours if they were paid for following their goals.

“There’s something about going from a no cash benefit to a small cash benefit that makes people think about things differently,” Slusky said. 

Even very small incentives can have powerful effects on people’s behavior. For example, businesses that charge a 5-cent tax per plastic bag have seen a sharp reduction in customers using them. After Montgomery County, Maryland, implemented a plastic bag tax, it saw a 42 percentage point reduction in disposable bag use.

Rewards and punishments are already regularly used by many U.S. companies and insurance providers to encourage people to take part in wellness screenings, stop smoking, lose weight or lower their cholesterol. The more that’s being paid, the more likely employees are to take part in health screenings.

Slusky said governments and businesses realize that the benefit everyone will experience in being able to go back to life “as normal” will be greater than the costs of paying people to get vaccinated.

Kansas City businesses offering incentives

Kansas City businesses have been offering vaccination incentives both to customers and employees.

Johnson County Community College offered $250 to employees who got vaccinated. Other Kansas City area companies — including Kansas City University, Fike Corp., the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and the cities of Overland Park, Olathe and Shawnee in Kansas — are offering employees wellness points for getting the vaccine.

The Westport Flea Market is offering fully vaccinated customers who show their vaccine cards a buy-one-get-one-free burger deal through the end of the year.

Krispy Kreme is currently offering a free glazed doughnut to anyone with a vaccination card.

At Up-Down, Hayden said the free vaccine incentive has brought both new and returning customers to the bar.

“I would definitely encourage other business owners to think about what they can do,” Hayden said. “There is really something cool about someone making you that first place they go.”

Want a chance to win $1 million or free beer? Get vaccinated in these states.

Neither Kansas nor Missouri has offered residents any extra incentive to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but other states are handing out rewards.

Lisa Cox, communications director for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said it is considering vaccine incentive options but hasn’t yet made a decision. 

The Beacon reached out to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to ask about potential vaccine incentives but did not receive a response.

Ohio saw its highest level of new vaccinations in three weeks after it started Ohio Vax-a-Million, a program that enters people who have at least one shot into lotteries for money or college tuition. Residents who are over 18 can be entered into one of five different $1 million lotteries, and residents who are 12 to 17 can enter to win one of five four-year full-ride scholarships to college.

Up-Down KC advertising for their new Tokens for Poke’ns promotion that exchanges free game tokens for customers vaccinated against COVID-19. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Officials say hundreds of thousands of Ohioans have registered for the program, and that vaccinations for people ages 30 to 74 increased by 6% after they had been declining for weeks.

West Virginia also considered a money-based approach to motivating residents to get vaccinated, but now it’s reporting difficulty in implementing the program. Originally, Gov. Jim Justice announced the possibility of giving all residents between 16 and 35 who get vaccinated a $100 savings bond, but recently he said the state is considering alternative incentives.

Other states and cities have tried to nudge residents to get vaccinated with free food or drinks. New Jersey residents vaccinated in May can bring their vaccine card to local breweries for a free beer. Connecticut restaurants partnered with the state to give free drinks to vaccinated customers who buy food. 

Washington, D.C., started hosting vaccine events at local businesses where participants who get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can get free cider, free beer, prize bags or tickets to sporting events

New York City is partnering with Shake Shack to offer vaccinated residents free fries with the purchase of a burger or sandwich until June 12.

There also are national efforts in the works — the White House announced it is teaming up with dating apps to give incentives to vaccinated users.

Target started giving $5 gift cards to anyone who gets vaccinated at a CVS at Target location.

What do businesses participating in these joint government incentive programs gain?

“I think that’s both excellent publicity for those companies, and also part of them being part of the social mission of the country,” Slusky said.

“The hope here is to return to a full economy. I think it’s nothing short of the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of this country. Which is why I think in most cases, this is a very small price to pay.”

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.