L.A. considers sweeping COVID vaccine mandate for restaurants, gyms, malls and salons

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 10: Bennett Erickson, left, general manager at Sunset Beer checks proof of vaccination for Anthony Trapanese, middle, and Caitlin Forst, right, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA. Los Angeles County required to show proof of vaccination before entering. The report will consider whether a mandate should require one dose or full vaccination to enter certain locations, and whether the policy should apply to all indoor public spaces or certain nonessential businesses and events. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Bennett Erickson, left, serves Anthony Trapanese and Caitlin Forst after checking their vaccination status at Sunset Beer in Echo Park. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles is considering a sweeping law requiring adult customers to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination to enter indoor restaurants, coffee shops, gyms, shopping centers, museums, movie theaters and hair and nail salons.

The plan, which the City Council will consider Wednesday, would be one of the strictest vaccine orders to date — and likely make demonstrating inoculation status part of the daily routine for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Angelenos.

The proposal also would require adult customers to show proof of vaccination to enter bowling alleys, arcades, cardrooms and pool halls, as well as personal care establishments such as tanning salons, skin care businesses, tattoo and piercing shops, and massage therapy settings except for treatment of a medical condition.

An exemption to the requirement would be available for people with a “sincerely held religious belief” or a relevant medical condition precluding vaccination. But exempt customers must show a recent negative coronavirus test result and a written note attesting to their religious belief or medical condition for entry to the businesses requiring vaccination.

If a business has an outdoor area, people without proof of vaccination could use only that portion of the facility.

Customers who don’t provide proof of vaccination would still be able to enter a business to use the restroom or pick up a takeout order.

The proposed law also calls for requiring patrons of outdoor events with 5,000 or more attendees to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result as of Nov. 4.

It was more than a month ago that the City Council voted to direct city attorneys to draft a vaccine-verification law: a move proponents framed as essential both in turning the tide against the Delta variant-fueled coronavirus wave and helping stave off the possibility of future surges.

“If we ever want to get back to normal, to what Los Angeles was like pre-COVID, we need to stop the spread in places most high risk,” Council President Nury Martinez said during the Aug. 11 meeting. “So, if individuals want to go to their gym, go to their local bar without a mask, you need to get vaccinated. And if you want to watch a basketball game, a baseball game, go to a concert at a big venue, or even go into a movie theater, you need to get a shot.”

The trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic has improved dramatically since the council initially considered the concept.

Over the week ending Aug. 11, L.A. County reported an average of 3,474 new coronavirus cases per day, according to data compiled by The Times. That rolling average has since tumbled to 1,335 new cases per day.

COVID-19 hospitalizations, too, have plunged in recent weeks. On Aug. 11, 1,645 coronavirus-positive patients were admitted countywide. By Monday, that daily census had fallen to 892.

Despite the promising trends, though, health officials stress that the region remains vulnerable to potential new outbreaks — especially with the fall and winter looming.

“We’ve been here before. During early fall 2020, community transmission was low until, then, it wasn’t,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday. “Last winter was brutal and, given the unpredictability of the virus and the variants, we need to accelerate the pace of vaccinations, since this is the most effective tool we have to prevent another deadly surge.”

The county has already announced a set of similar, though less stringent, vaccine rules that will go into effect early next month.

L.A. County’s latest health order will require patrons and workers at indoor bars, wineries, breweries, nightclubs and lounges to be at least partially vaccinated by Oct. 7 and fully vaccinated by Nov. 4. That order also strongly recommends, but does not require, such verification for indoor restaurants.

Starting Oct. 7, the county will also require everyone 12 and older to show they’ve either been vaccinated or recently tested negative to attend at outdoor events with 10,000 or more people .

The county’s rules apply everywhere except Long Beach and Pasadena, which have their own public health departments. However, both those cities have already said they will align their local rules with the county’s.

In California, cities can pass vaccination laws that are more restrictive than a county order.

The city of Los Angeles’ proposal is similar to an order in place in West Hollywood. But that order does not cover malls or museums, nor does it offer exemptions for religious or other reasons.

West Hollywood will begin requiring adult customers to show proof of at least one vaccine dose on Oct. 7, and proof of full vaccination starting Nov. 4.

Palm Springs and neighboring Cathedral City have ordered patrons 12 and older to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test result to enter indoor restaurants and bars.

In some ways, the proposed Los Angeles rule is more permissive than orders in San Francisco and Berkeley, which do not allow the use of a recent negative coronavirus test result to substitute for the vaccination requirement.

But the proposed L.A. rule covers more businesses than in San Francisco or Berkeley, whose orders don’t apply to malls, salons or museums.

Contra Costa County, the Bay Area’s third-most populous, requires customers of indoor restaurants, bars and gyms to show either proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test result.

San Jose requires all attendees at large indoor events at city-owned facilities to show proof of full vaccination.

Outside California, New York City requires proof of vaccination restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, museums, bowling alleys, arcades, pool halls and indoor play centers.

To date, 67.7% of L.A. County residents have been at least partially vaccinated for COVID-19, a touch above the statewide figure of 66.5%, Times’ data show.

Even those are well below the threshold experts think is necessary to potentially reach herd immunity, when enough of the population is protected that the coronavirus is essentially blocked from spreading in the community.

What share of the population would need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity from COVID-19 is unknown, and the hyper-transmissibility of the Delta variant — along with slowing inoculation rates — have upended earlier optimistic timelines as to when that could be accomplished.

“You know when you are at herd immunity when the virus doesn’t have an opportunity to go from person to person,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, said during a briefing Tuesday. “But right now, we don’t know what that number is. And when you don’t know what the number is, what do you do? You vaccinate as many people as you possibly can, as quickly and as expeditiously as you possibly can.”

Regardless of the metrics on a countywide or statewide basis, officials remain concerned that the hyper-transmissible Delta variant will still threaten to prey on communities or populations where vaccine coverage remains less robust.

“It’s not inevitable that we continue to experience these cycles of scary increases in cases,” Ferrer told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday. “The entire premise of community immunity is to get enough people vaccinated to leave little room for virus transmission.”

Every additional infection, officials and experts warn, also gives the coronavirus another opportunity to mutate in potentially harmful ways — perhaps evolving so that it spreads more easily, as was the case with the Delta variant, or even so that it can evade the current generation of vaccines.

Recently, another mutation — designated as R.1 — has drawn headlines, since it exhibits some characteristics that could make it more transmissible or more vaccine resistant.

However, neither the World Health Organization nor the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have determined the strain to be a variant of either concern or interest. And it appears Delta is so dominant stateside that it’s effectively kept R.1 from gaining a foothold.

Ferrer said 68 coronavirus cases in California have been linked to the R.1 variant — with only two of them in L.A. County. All the cases, she said, happened in the spring and earlier in the summer.

“This is a variant that, because of its properties, people are worried about it. But it died out already,” she said. “Yes, it could come back, we could see more of it, but with viruses, one virus strain can dominate. And that’s what we’re seeing with Delta, and it crowds out everything else.”

Amid the proliferation of vaccination verification requirements, the California Department of Public Health has issued an order requiring vaccine providers to request patients’ cellphone numbers and email addresses for the state immunization registry.

Doing so, officials said, will help ensure residents have timely access to their digital inoculation records through the state platform at myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov.

Having that contact information also “provides the most effective means for tailored notification reminders to Californians about second doses needed to complete the COVID-19 vaccination series, as well as booster doses that may be recommended to boost immunity in specific populations,” the order states.

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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