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Americans Love Free Stuff, But Will They Get Vaccinated for It?

Across the country, the promise of beer, fries, and other freebies are being used to convinced people to get the COVID-19 vaccine

A mug of beer on a wooden bar Shutterstock
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

Three months ago, I was waking up an hour early every morning to try to find my 66-year-old dad an appointment for the COVID vaccine. I’d open tabs for appointments at city-run sites, state-run sites, and local pharmacies, and refresh refresh refresh, sometimes watching an appointment pop up only for it to disappear as soon as I clicked it. Eventually, I nabbed one, and a month later my partner and I repeated the process for ourselves when we became eligible. But the refreshing, the anxiety, the waiting for new appointments to drop was the hallmark of the experience, and the reward was the shot in the arm and the knowledge that soon I could finally hug my family — forced distant by the pandemic — once again.

Since then, as more people have gotten vaccinated and others refuse vaccination, the reward has changed. Whereas once it was the return to some semblance of normal, that’s no longer enough. Now it needs to include a donut. Or a beer. Or a pound of crawfish.

In April, the average number of doses administered per day peaked at 3.38 million. Now, it’s down to around two million a day. And while President Biden has set a goal for 70% of adults to have at least their first dose by July 4, demand has dropped to the point where some states are turning down vaccine doses. So local governments and national businesses are taking it upon themselves to lure in the reluctant with food and beer.

There are seemingly endless opportunities for Americans to turn a vaccine appointment into a buffet, whether through specials tied to specific vaccine pop-up events, or just by showing proof of vaccination at certain businesses. In New Orleans, the city council is hosting an event to give vaccine recipients a free pound of boiled crawfish with their shots, and multiple local bars have hosted “shot-for-shot” events. There’s free beer and cheeseburgers in Seattle. In New York, you can get a free mini Junior’s Cheesecake with proof of a shot, and a free side of fries with your Shake Shack order. In New Jersey, over a dozen local breweries are giving away free beers with proof of vaccine, and similar programs are now underway in Connecticut and Erie County, NY.

“We decided it just makes sense to go where the people are,” Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz told NPR about setting up a vaccine pop-up inside a local brewery, which he says was incredibly successful. “We got 10 times more people to get vaccinated with their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in just a few hours at a brewery than we would have if we had been sitting in one of our full-time clinics for 12 hours.”

Even if you don’t live in these areas, plenty of national chains are rewarding customers for flashing their vaccination cards. José Andres is giving vaccinated diners a $50 gift certificate to any of his ThinkFoodGroup restaurants. Krispy Kreme is continuing its free donut giveaway through the rest of the year. Unilever gave out free popsicles and Klondike shakes at vaccine sites across the country on Friday, May 12. Through May 31, White Castle is giving vaccine recipients a free dessert-on-a-stick. And Budweiser will trade you a selfie with your vaccination sticker for a $5 virtual debit card, ideally to be used on a beer.

This all comes at a time when experts are questioning whether the U.S. can even reach the vaccine threshold needed for “herd immunity,” the point at which enough people will have COVID-19 antibodies for it to cease being a major threat. Herd immunity is not the only way to control the virus, and as Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the New York Times, “What we want to do at the very least is get to a point where we have just really sporadic little flare-ups. That would be a very sensible target in this country where we have an excellent vaccine and the ability to deliver it.” Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is still the key to returning to “normal” safely.

But the reasons some adults aren’t getting vaccinated vary wildly. Sure, there are people who believe the vaccine is planting a 5G chip in your arm, or who are wary of a historically racist health care system. But for others, the issues are more structural. They can’t take time off work to get vaccinated, or to recover from the sometimes intense side-effects. The vaccine centers are too far away and cost too much to get there. And some are under the impression that you have to pay for the vaccine (you don’t) because we live in a country without free health care. A free beer isn’t going to solve these deeper issues.

It might be hard to imagine anyone who was hesitant to get the vaccine — whether for personal or logistical reasons — was just waiting for the promise of a free mini-cheesecake before signing up. But that’s what’s driving some people to get it. “People told us that they had been thinking about it, but it wasn’t a priority,” Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County Health Commissioner, told Slate. “Now we were giving them something that they liked in a place where they like to go. So they thought, ‘Why not? I’ll do it.’” And now that clinics are offering walk-in shots and appointments are easier than ever to come by, it’s at least a nice consolation prize for anyone who couldn’t get a vaccine sooner. If it is the thing that finally convinces even one person to get vaccinated, it’ll be worth it.