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Pennsylvania business owner paying locals to get COVID-19 vaccine

Kirk Bower has put aside $10,000 pay 200 locals to get vaccinated in Columbia County.

Kirk Bower holds up a stack of $50 bills inside Kissingers Floor & Wall on Front Street in Berwick. Keith Kaupt/Press Enterprise
Kirk Bower holds up a stack of $50 bills inside Kissingers Floor & Wall on Front Street in Berwick. Keith Kaupt/Press EnterpriseRead moreKeith Haupt

If everyone in Kirk Bower’s town was fully vaccinated, his dinged-up Chevy pickup truck would be looking pretty again.

Bower, 67, owns Kissinger’s Floor & Wall, a store by the Susquehanna River in Berwick, 125 miles north of Philadelphia in Columbia County. He said he’s backed the 2008 truck into a dumpster out back countless times and collected quite a few dents along the way. So he put aside some money to fix it up.

Earlier this fall, however, a close friend contracted COVID-19 and his health went downhill quickly, Bower said. The man, 72, wasn’t vaccinated.

“He was sick for four days, then on the ventilator. When they took it off, he died within 12 minutes,” Bower said recently. “He was a great guy, give you the shirt off his back. He just made a bad choice.”

Bower thought of his truck, all those dents, and the money he’d saved and decided to take a different route. He’s offering $50 to any unvaccinated resident of Berwick and neighboring Nescopeck willing to get the shots.

“I thought long and hard about what our duty is to our fellow man. We seem to have lost track of that, but we’re all in this together,” Bower said. “If people need an incentive, I can give them a $50 bill with proof of two shots.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, 56.7% of Columbia County residents are fully vaccinated. That’s slightly less than the state average of 57.3%. In some rural counties, the vaccination rate is below 40%.

Bower said he’s set aside $10,000 for his plan, enough for 200 vaccinations. As of early December, he’d handed out less than $1,000.

“My hope is to spend it all,” he said.

Vaccine incentives are not uncommon in the U.S and have evolved from a free beer or basketball tickets into cash. In one New York county, officials are handing out $100 gift cards. An Arizona school district may dish out a one-time payment of $500 to fully vaccinated teachers, plus $100 for the booster shot. Baltimore may double that and offer fully vaccinated city employees $1,000.

Encouraging and paying people to get vaccinated hasn’t stirred up any controversy for Bower. The reaction, he said, has been positive, and the flooring business is still good.

His truck makeover will have to wait.

“I’m not the government, not the hospital or some political group,” he said. “I’m just a guy trying to help.”