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LA moves to lift vaccine verification mandate at domestic businesses

Members of the Los Angeles City Council took the first step Wednesday toward lifting vaccine verification requirements at many indoor businesses, the latest in a series of rule relaxations as the Omicron push wears off regularly.

Although not yet final, this decision would have a radical effect in the City of Angels: removing the obligation for establishments such as restaurants and bars, hair salons, gyms and cinemas to check whether their customers inside are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Under an ordinance that will be drafted and come back to council for final approval at a future meeting, checking whether domestic customers are vaccinated would be voluntary. Operators of major outdoor events in Los Angeles would also no longer need to check if attendees are vaccinated.

The council voted 12 to 0, without discussion, to write an ordinance changing the city’s rules.

Opponents of the vaccination rule, including leaders of the Los Angeles County Libertarian Party, had pushed to overturn the mandate through a ballot. Angela McArdle, county party chair, said if the rule was repealed, her group would seek to prevent such requirements from being reinstated in the future. Several people who phoned Wednesday’s meeting argued that the Los Angeles rules were overbearing and discriminatory.

“We’re going to keep fighting, just to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Libertarian Party member Shawn Osborne told the council ahead of Wednesday’s vote. “Thank you – and to hell with the tyrants.”

Others have raised concerns about LA’s decision to remove the requirement. City rules “have forced people to be more responsible and take the virus seriously,” said Emily Dibiny, who leads the People Organized for Westside Renewal community health team.

Dibiny said that when spring break rolls around, cases might reappear and “the next thing you know they’re going to be like, ‘No, now it’s mandatory again.’”

LA’s vaccine verification requirement has been in place since November. Collectively dubbed SafePassLA, the rules rank among the most extensive implemented statewide – applying to restaurants, gymnasiums, performing arts theaters, concert and music venues, convention centers, museums, nail salons, tanning salons, bowling alleys, card rooms and arcades.

Proponents have touted the move as an important additional layer of safety in indoor public places, where the risk of coronavirus transmission is generally higher.

Just over a month after the rules went into effect, California and the country have been hit by a viral tsunami spawned by the hyper-infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus. However, that surge peaked in late January, and the number of daily coronavirus cases and hospitalized COVID-19 patients has since fallen back to pre-surge levels. After a January peak of 42,000 daily coronavirus cases, LA County is averaging 1,200 daily cases, a level not seen since early December, just days after the Omicron discovery was announced.

Under the order, the verification requirement was to be enforced through tickets and an escalating series of fines, but officials said they would suspend citations until February, focusing instead on the education and awareness.

So far no fines have been issued: The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, which has been tasked with enforcing the city’s rules, said it had sent notices to six companies urging them to correct violations of city requirements, but had not released all citations as of Wednesday.

One politician has argued that the city should also remove another requirement imposed during the pandemic: one that requires City of Los Angeles employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or obtain an exemption.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, who said last week he wanted to offer “a testing alternative,” introduced a motion on Wednesday asking city officials to report on the feasibility and impacts of canceling the vaccination requirement for city employees, saying “a lot has changed” since it came into effect.

Given Omicron’s steep setback, Los Angeles and statewide officials said conditions had improved enough that it made sense to relax some preventative measures.

California has removed public indoor mask mandates in most places for everyone, whether vaccinated or not, although health officials continue to strongly recommend that residents wear masks. The state will also lift its indoor masking mandate in schools and daycares after Friday night.

The California Department of Public Health always requires proof of vaccination or a recent negative test at indoor mega-events — those with more than 1,000 people, like NBA games at Arena in Los Angeles . Vaccination verification is also required for healthcare workers and nursing home employees.

And while masking is now largely optional, there are still certain environments where face coverings are mandatory – such as on public transport, including airplanes, or in healthcare facilities, nursing homes, shelters for homeless, jails, jails and emergency shelters.

Last week, the LA County Public Health Department rolled back its own limited vaccination check rule, which applied to indoor areas of bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries, nightclubs and lounges. County health officials also lifted the requirement that attendees at outdoor mega-events with more than 10,000 attendees show they are vaccinated or have recently tested negative for the coronavirus.

However, individual cities are allowed to have stricter requirements than the county, which is why LA rules have applied to many more businesses and why the city council must take special action to lift them.

Even if the city’s rule is revoked, businesses and venues can choose to continue monitoring the vaccination status of customers if they wish.

The other LA County city with its own vaccine-checking rule at indoor restaurants and gyms is West Hollywood. No formal action has been taken to relax this requirement.

San Francisco health officials announced Wednesday that the city will lift its vaccination or testing requirement on Friday to enter restaurants, bars, gyms, clubs, theaters and other indoor places that serve food or drink. Berkeley made a similar announcement on Wednesday, saying it would end its vaccine mandate for those settings on Friday. Businesses can continue to require vaccination checks if they wish.

“With cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline and our high vaccination rate providing a strong defense against the virus, San Francisco is ready to further reduce COVID-19 restrictions and allow individuals to make their own decisions to protect themselves. and protect their loved ones,” San Francisco health worker Dr. Susan Philip said in a statement.

Vaccination or testing requirements “have served their purpose in keeping these spaces as safe as possible for staff and customers. Rolling it back is part of the way out of crisis and learning to live with the virus,” Philip said.

San Francisco has a “moderate” level of coronavirus transmission, with a case rate of 37 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents over the past week as of Wednesday afternoon, according to The Times coronavirus tracker. That’s about half the rate for LA County, which reports 76 cases per week per 100,000 people – a “substantial” level of transmission.

About 71% of LA County residents of all ages are considered fully vaccinated, while in San Francisco, 83% of residents are fully vaccinated, according to their respective health departments.

The Bay Area’s third-most populous county, Contra Costa, lifted its vaccine or testing requirement in February after 80% of its residents were fully vaccinated.

Oakland has its own vaccine verification requirement for businesses such as restaurants and indoor gyms. Berkeley will maintain an order requiring up-to-date vaccinations, including boosters if eligible, for child care workers.

In an interview Friday, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer — who backed vaccine verification rules at some businesses last fall — said it was now reasonable to lift verification requirements. vaccines in places like bars, given the trajectory of the pandemic.

Ferrer said it made sense to impose a vaccine requirement for businesses in high-risk settings when coronavirus case rates were high, and it makes sense to relax them now that case rates have fall. The lifting of these rules is “a recognition that we are in a different place today than we have been before,” Ferrer said.

Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a UCLA epidemiologist and infectious disease expert, agreed. He noted that hospitals are no longer in a potentially overwhelmed position and that the deployment of COVID-19 drugs such as Paxlovid – still in limited supply – will further reduce the risk of hospitalization.

And while it’s still important to encourage vaccinations, “we’re probably getting to a core of people who won’t be swayed by vaccination,” Kim-Farley said.

Ferrer also said there is still a need to require city workers who work with vulnerable people — like police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters — to be vaccinated.

“If you’re on a mission to support the most vulnerable people in the county, it makes sense for people to be fully immunized, especially during a pandemic,” Ferrer said. With COVID-19 even deadlier than the flu, “I think with this higher mortality, and especially with all the vulnerability that people may be experiencing, I just think we’re in a place where it still makes sense to get vaccinated.