Los Angeles could soon ease city rules requiring indoor restaurants, gyms, bars, movie theaters, hair salons and other businesses to check that customers are vaccinated against COVID-19 before letting them inside.
L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez put forward a proposal this week to stop requiring such businesses to check whether customers are vaccinated, instead making the practice voluntary. The proposal would also drop requirements for major outdoor events in L.A. to check if patrons are vaccinated.
The move came on the same day that the L.A. County Department of Public Health lifted many mask requirements and stopped requiring vaccination verification at the indoor portions of bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries, nightclubs and lounges, as well as a vaccine-or-negative test requirement at outdoor mega-events with more than 10,000 attendees, including at theme parks and SoFi Stadium.
Cities can have stronger vaccine verification requirements than the county, and that’s the case for the city of Los Angeles.
The City Council voted in October to require a range of indoor businesses to check that their customers were vaccinated and a vaccine-or-negative test requirement at outdoor venues with 5,000 or more attendees and fewer than 10,000. But officials said they would hold off until February on citing any businesses for violating those requirements, saying they wanted to focus first on education and outreach.
Besides restaurants and gyms, the other types of indoor settings that the city requires the vaccine verification of customers include performing arts theaters, music and concert venues, convention centers, museums, nail salons, tanning salons, bowling alleys, card rooms and arcades.
It is unclear exactly when L.A. might ease its rules, known as SafePassLA: To roll back the requirements, the City Council must approve the proposal put forward by Martinez.
L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer backed vaccine verification rules in certain businesses last fall. But on Friday, Ferrer said it was reasonable to lift those requirements countywide in places like bars, given the trajectory of the pandemic. City and county officials began discussing a vaccine mandate for customers of certain indoor businesses in the summer, as the Delta surge swept the nation.
Over the summer, some local businesses began imposing vaccine requirements on their own, frustrated that unvaccinated people posed a greater risk of spreading infection, including being the source of breakthrough infections that sickened vaccinated people.
Ferrer said it made sense to impose a vaccine requirement for businesses in high-risk environments at a time when coronavirus case rates were high, and it makes sense to relax them now that case rates have fallen.
The lifting of vaccine verification orders is “a recognition that we’re in a different place today than we’ve been before,” Ferrer said in an interview.
She is still suggesting that businesses continue to verify customers’ vaccination status, but, “as opposed to telling people what they have to do, we’re asking people to do them now.”
In early August, 64% of L.A. County residents age 12 and up were considered fully vaccinated. By the end of February, 79% of residents in that age group were fully vaccinated. Ferrer said she thinks the public health infrastructure has made improvements since the summer making access to vaccines easier.
The idea of lifting the vaccination verification requirement alarmed some Angelenos. “An excellent way to make sure we never fully get this under control is to loosen restrictions before we’re at a place where it’s truly safe to do so,” said Jesse Alson-Milkman, board secretary of the progressive organizing group Ground Game LA.
The Los Angeles rules have been targeted by opponents, including leaders of the Libertarian Party of Los Angeles County, who have been seeking to overturn the city ordinance through a voter initiative.
Angela McArdle, chair of the county party, said that if the city does roll back the vaccination verification rules, her group would instead pursue a measure to prevent L.A. from reinstating such rules in the future.
McArdle said she and other opponents want “to make sure this could never happen again.”
New York City announced Friday that it would end vaccine verification rules for restaurants, gyms and other entertainment venues beginning Monday.
In February, Contra Costa County — the San Francisco Bay Area’s third-most populous county — lifted its vaccine-or-test requirement for customers of indoor restaurants, bars and gyms after 80% of its residents of all ages were fully vaccinated.
Other cities that have retained similar vaccine verification rules include West Hollywood, Oakland and Berkeley. San Francisco requires patrons of venues like restaurants and gyms to show either proof of vaccination and a booster shot, if eligible, or a recent negative coronavirus test.
Proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is still required at indoor mega-events — those with more than 1,000 people, such as NBA games at L.A.’s Crypto.com Arena — which remains a statewide requirement. Vaccination verification also is required for healthcare workers and employees at nursing homes.
Ferrer said she continues to support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to require K-12 schoolchildren to get vaccinated whenever the U.S. Food and Drug Administration upgrades its emergency use authorization to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to full approval for each age group. It’s not clear when the FDA will fully approve the vaccines for the first pediatric group — those age 12 to 15 — that would start the process of requiring the vaccines in schoolchildren age 12 and up.
“Requiring essential lifesaving vaccines for children attending schools makes a lot of sense,” Ferrer said. “These are places where children really have to go, unless they want to be homeschooled, and because of that, the obligation to provide as safe an environment as possible is really high.
“You don’t have to go to a bar if you feel like it’s not a safe environment,” Ferrer added. “But school is an essential activity. And many, many children who need to go to school are also children who may be at higher risk for severe illness.”
Ferrer also said it continues to make sense for municipal workers who work with vulnerable people — like police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters — to be required to be vaccinated. “If you’re in the business of supporting the most vulnerable people in the county, then it makes sense for people to be fully vaccinated, especially during a pandemic,” Ferrer said.
“These are extraordinary times, I don’t think any of us should think this is sort of normal times here,” Ferrer said regarding the vaccination mandate for first responders. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. And COVID is not flu and COVID is not a cold. The mortality data just is so much higher with COVID. So, I think with this higher mortality, and especially with all of the vulnerability that people can experience, I just think we’re in a place where it still makes sense to get vaccinated.”