After a multi-week ramp-up, Los Angeles will now enforce its mandate that patrons prove they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of entering a host of indoor businesses.
The city's requirement — which applies to indoor restaurants, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, coffee shops, gyms, museums, bowling alleys and performance venues, among other spaces — has been in place for the last three weeks.
But officials opted to temporarily hold off on citing or fining those who ran afoul of the regulations, saying they would start with educational and outreach efforts to make sure businesses understood what the rules were and how to comply.
“The intention of this isn’t to penalize businesses. Our businesses can’t afford another shutdown,” L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez said earlier this month. “It’s to limit the transmission of the virus and save lives.”
Now, that grace period is over. Businesses or venues that flout the rules will face penalties — a warning to start, then an escalating series of fines starting at $1,000 and topping out at $5,000 for a fourth or subsequent violation.
However, the official start of enforcement doesn't necessarily mean a flurry of tickets is imminent. Officials in wider L.A. County, for instance, say they have seen generally robust compliance with vaccine-verification rules.
But the county's mandate is far more limited in scope, requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination only at indoor bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries, nightclubs and lounges.
The city’s program, called SafePassLA, covers many more settings.
Among them are restaurants, bars and coffee shops; live performance venues; tattoo and piercing parlors, sports arenas and convention centers; exhibition halls and museums; tasting rooms at breweries, wineries and distilleries; cafeterias, food courts, banquet halls and hotel ballrooms; gyms, and dance and fitness studios; movie theaters, family entertainment centers, bowling alleys, arcades, card rooms and pool halls; and spas, hair and nail salons, and estheticians and cosmetology services.
SafePassLA does allow exemptions for religious or medical reasons. But businesses must require such customers to use outdoor facilities or show evidence of a recent negative coronavirus test to come inside if no outdoor area is available.
Along with the mandate covering indoor business settings, the city is also requiring attendees of outdoor events with 5,000 or more people to show proof of vaccination or that they have recently tested negative for the coronavirus.
Customers without proof of vaccination or exemption can still enter briefly to use the restroom or pick up a takeout order.
L.A. is also requiring proof of vaccination for entrance to indoor city facilities, such as City Hall and senior, recreation and other service centers. Unvaccinated people will be provided alternative arrangements that could include online or outdoor services or the option to provide a negative test to enter.
For outdoor events with at least 5,000 people, attendees can show the negative result of a test taken within 72 hours of entry instead of proof of vaccination.
There are a number of documents that comply with the vaccine-verification requirement.
Patrons can flash the familiar white vaccine card issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or show a photograph of it. Similar documents from foreign agencies — like the World Health Organization — also will be accepted.
Official digital records are also an option. The state maintains its own portal at myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov, and Healthvana, an online medical data resource, has teamed with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to provide digitized records.
Adults also should be prepared to show photo identification along with their proof of vaccination.
Officials and experts say vaccine-verification measures like those now in place throughout L.A. can help combat the pandemic by keeping unvaccinated individuals — who remain at significantly higher risk of getting and falling seriously ill with COVID-19 — from spending significant amounts of time in cramped indoor settings, where the coronavirus can spread more easily.
Such interventions may be all the more important now, given the uncertain shadow cast by the newly discovered Omicron variant.
The World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern” Friday, but no cases have been confirmed in the United States. Still, experts say they fully expect the strain will arrive stateside — if it hasn't already.
Although much is unknown at this point, officials are sounding the alarm about Omicron because it has more mutations than any scientists have seen, including some that may make the virus more transmissible or resistant to immunity generated by previous infections or vaccines.
Omicron's full impact is still to be determined, and it remains unclear whether it will share the fate of other concerning variants that were crowded out of circulation by the highly infectious and still-dominant Delta variant.
But the new strain nonetheless has injected fresh uncertainty into a pandemic that, in California at least, has been on the retreat in recent weeks.
Over the last week, the state has reported an average of 4,029 new coronavirus cases per day, down 20% from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
The number of Californians hospitalized with COVID-19 has, on the whole, also trended downward. There were 3,124 coronavirus-positive patients statewide on Sunday, a 10% decrease from mid-November.
Even before the emergence of Omicron, however, experts and officials had expressed concern that the arrival of winter — with its packed holiday calendar and lower temperatures that would increasingly push gatherings and festivities indoors — could trigger some sort of coronavirus resurgence.
That reality, and the emergence of the newest variant, reinforce what's a familiar refrain in the public health realm: Get vaccinated and, if eligible, get boosted.
"Vaccines continue to be our best way through the pandemic by safely protecting us against severe illness from COVID-19 and its variants," Dr. Tomás Aragón, the state health officer and director of public health, said in a statement. "We are doubling down on our vaccination and booster efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective, and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death."
The CDC on Monday strengthened its recommendations on who should get boosters. In a statement, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC's director, said that all vaccinated adults should get a booster, as long as they received their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna shot at least six months ago, or they received their Johnson & Johnson shot at least two months ago.
“The recent emergence of the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” Walensky said. “Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant.”
The CDC previously recommended booster shots for adults 50 and older. The CDC made younger, healthier adults age 18 to 49 eligible for booster shots but stopped short of recommending them.
The agency's newest recommendations are in line with the California Department of Public Health. In mid-November, California health officials recommended boosters for all vaccinated adults, as long as enough time had passed since their primary vaccination series.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.