Detroit, with a still-lagging COVID-19 vaccination rate, is taking its "Good Neighbor" strategy up a notch.
Starting Monday, the city is offering $50 MasterCard debit gift cards to anyone who drives a Detroiter to their vaccination appointment at TCF Center's drive-through site.
The Good Neighbor program started at the beginning of the city's vaccination efforts: Drive an older city resident to their appointment and you can get vaccinated yourself, even if you're a bit younger than them and not technically eligible. It expanded in February to any metro Detroit resident.
"Eventually, everybody was eligible for the vaccine, so nobody had to be a good neighbor, you could get the shot on your own," Mayor Mike Duggan said. "And when that happened, in particular, we saw the senior vaccines start to dip."
Someone who's "really entrepreneurial," Duggan said, could get paid hundreds of dollars for bringing in scores of residents — though only three per car. The driver will be handed the debit card once their passenger gets their shot.
"Now, I don't know any place else in the country that's doing this," Duggan said. "So we made up a set of rules. And we're gonna try this. We're in uncharted territory here."
The program is aimed at helping older residents, but it's also targeting any Detroiters without cars who want to get a drive-up appointment. Widely held estimates say a fourth of city residents lack cars, so it's not a small problem.
Detroit also offers $2 Uber-style rides to the TCF Center vaccination site, but those aren't ideal for everyone and they also cost the city $35-$50 per ride, depending on time. Thus, the $50 gift card.
The new incentive comes as Detroit continues to be the least vaccinated locality in Michigan. Of city residents, 29.9% have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine while statewide that rate is 48.8%. Duggan said he wants to make Detroit the easiest place around to get a vaccine, but doesn't want to pay people outright to get vaccinated, maintaining that it's a choice.
"I just think it's the wrong thing to do. You're paying people to save their own lives. It looks like you might be pressured. I don't want to do that," he said.
However, Duggan said on April 14 that companies had offered to create incentives, like giveaways, for Detroiters who get vaccinated. The mayor didn't name the companies but said at the time that the city was looking at what other cities were doing. This debit-card program appears to be the first widespread financial incentive in the city.
Detroit has also partnered with the Detroit Pistons, planning a family vaccination event May 1 at the basketball team's Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center in the New Center neighborhood.
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's Detroit Business.