Earlier this month, an ordinance by the Los Angeles City Council took effect to require restaurants, gyms, salons and other businesses to verify the vaccination or negative COVID-19 test status of their customers.
Business organizations have voiced concerns about the rules, especially the implicit responsibility on employees to act as “vaccine bouncers” to enforce the rule.
Procedures observed at four businesses visited by the Business Journal indicated enforcement in the Valley region is sporadic. The sample included a gym, a nail salon and two restaurants. Three of the four didn’t ask for any vaccine verification. The fourth, a restaurant with a bar, had a server request proof of vaccine and photo ID from patrons prior to being seated inside.
Pushback to the mandate was widespread at the outset and remains strong, with business advocates, members of the public, and some council members objecting to the rule, which is stricter than Los Angeles County requirements.
“Businesses have been bearing the brunt of all these mandates since the beginning and we would like all of our different levels of government to look for a way to move forward without continually putting it on businesses all the time,” Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, chief executive of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber, said of the ordinance. “We have been following the (Los Angeles County) health orders for the last two years, and we should continue to remain aligned with the county’s direction. The city ordinance is much stricter than the county’s and has different implementation guidelines than other jurisdictions,” she said.
At the annual “State of the Valley” luncheon put on by the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber in mid-November, John Lee, one of five City Council members who appeared at the event, pointed out that an unvaccinated customer who sneaks into a business isn’t the one who will be fined. The business will.
In addition, Lee said, “I think we all know” that the ordinance won’t be effectively enforced, which is another reason he was one of two council members who voted against it.
The ordinance first passed on Oct. 6 in an 11-2 vote by the City Council, with the requirement going into effect on Nov. 8. The rule, one of the strictest in the nation, required customers to provide proof of vaccination to access indoor services at restaurants and bars, theaters and museums, fitness and yoga centers, as well as nail and hair salons.
The mandate allows for limited exceptions for patrons who have a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief which prevents them from receiving the vaccine. In such cases, in lieu of proof of vaccine, guests may provide proof that they have taken a COVID-19 test within the last 72 hours and received a negative result.
“A patron who does not provide proof of vaccination may be allowed to enter an indoor portion of a covered location for brief and limited periods of time to use the restroom, order, pick-up, or pay for food or drink “to go,” or perform necessary repairs, provided that the patron wears a well-fitting mask at all times,” the ordinance reads. “To the extent feasible, a covered location may offer service outside for a patron who does not provide proof of vaccination, including curbside pickup, drive thru, delivery, and outdoor seating and dining.”
Initially, malls and shopping centers were included among the businesses that would require guests to provide vaccination or testing documents to access indoor services. However, on Nov. 12, after several weeks of vocal opposition from business leaders, the City Council made several changes to the ordinance, including removing shopping malls and centers from the list, in part because of how difficult it would be to enforce these requirements at stores with multiple entrances.
The City Council also specified in the updated language that the rule applies to all guests over the age of 12 instead of all eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, which includes people over the age of 5. Businesses are required to verify the patron’s identity using photo identification if they appear to be over the age of 18.
Businesses caught allowing guests inside without such proof will be first warned and then fined $1,000 for a second violation, $2,000 for a third violation and $5,000 for a fourth and each subsequent violation. Enforcement of the fines begins Nov. 29.
City, county versions
The current orders from the County of Los Angeles include a similar requirement, effective Oct. 7, which mandates indoor bars, wineries, night clubs and lounges verify proof of vaccination among guests.
Between Oct. 30 and Nov. 5, inspectors for L.A. County Department of Public Health found that 93 percent of bars, 94 percent of nightclubs and 100 percent of lounges visited were in compliance with requirements to check customers’ vaccination status.
Similar rates of compliance among restaurants, gyms and other impacted businesses are not yet available for the ordinance passed by the city, but enforcement has been a common concern among critics of the mandate.
Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry Commerce Association, expressed concerns in the public comment section of a recent city council meeting about additional business costs for enforcing the mandate. He also requested a gross receipt credit for expenses that small businesses are required to spend on additional security measures. Such measures have not been implemented, to the concern of business leaders.
“All in all, we’d like consistency,” Waldman said in his comment. “And working with the county to try and come up with a consistent, uniform proposal.”
Despite vocal concerns surrounding the implementation of the rule, and lax implementation in the Valley region, business owners and advocates remain frustrated that the brunt of enforcement has been put on business owners.
“It really puts an unnecessary burden on our business community at a time when we’re still trying to recover from the pandemic and its related economic catastrophe,” Hoffman Vanyek said.