LOS ANGELES — With one member withholding his vote, the Los Angeles City Council was forced Wednesday to delay by one week a decision on a proposed ordinance that would require people to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination before entering many indoor public spaces.
Councilman Joe Buscaino invoked a City Council rule to withhold unanimous consent, effectively preventing the council from voting on the ordinance on its first reading. Ordinances that don't receive unanimous approval on their first reading must return for a second vote.
"Despite an attempt to not move this forward, this council will vote to approve the ordinance next week," said Council President Nury Martinez.
"We've spent too much time placing restrictions on people who did their part by getting vaccinated and wearing their masks. We need to both limit the transmission of the virus as well as make it inconvenient for those who are unvaccinated to access indoor venues and put lives at jeopardy. The stakes are too high."
The council will consider the ordinance next week, when it will need just eight votes to pass, or 12 votes to pass with an urgency clause allowing it to take effect immediately, instead of one month from publication.
Since voting 13-0 on Aug. 11 to request the ordinance be prepared by the city attorney, a majority of council members have expressed support for the measure that would require proof of vaccinations before entering many indoor public spaces.
If passed, indoor public spaces that fall under the ordinance would be required to display advisory notices beginning Oct. 21 alerting customers to the vaccination requirement, which would go into effect Nov. 4.
The ordinance would apply to establishments that serve food or beverages, gyms and fitness venues, entertainment and recreation venues -- including movie theaters and shopping centers, personal care establishments.
Retail establishments, including grocery stores and pharmacies, are not included in the draft ordinance.
"We want it to be sensitive to the fact that these are essential services to people. We can't limit people from buying their groceries or going to a doctor's office or getting gas or fueling their vehicle," Martinez said Wednesday morning. "So there is a number of retail spaces and businesses that we did not take into consideration."
The Chief Legislative Analyst told council members Wednesday that the city does not yet have a department chosen to enforce the ordinance, but it has identified the Department of Building and Safety as the most relevant.
But that department does not have the staffing to enforce the law. Enforcement of compliance would begin Nov. 29, and businesses that violate the ordinance would be issued a $1,000 fine for its second violation, $2,000 fine for a third violation and a $5,000 fine for a fourth violation.
Buscaino said he wouldn't support the ordinance Wednesday, saying there's no enforcement measure in place.
"Per Rule 39, I withheld my vote today because it is imperative that the city attorney provide this council with clear language and more information on how this will be enforced without penalizing small businesses," he said.
"I agree with the premise of this ordinance that we need more people to be vaccinated and we need to find ways to keep our workers safe, but making a teenager with no formal training serve as a bouncer to keep people in or out of a restaurant and then fining the business for their failure is not the way to go about it. In its current state, this ordinance is confusing and unclear and it is the council's duty to the public to rectify these uncertainties before next week's vote."
Councilmen Bob Blumenfield, Mike Bonin and Paul Krekorian expressed concern about details in the ordinance, including a lack of enforcement, but noted that it was imperative that the requirement goes into effect quickly, and that the details can be fixed later.
"All those concerns being said, we can't delay a day longer. We need to advance forward with an ordinance that is going to protect people from their fellow citizens who are making a choice not to be vaccinated," Krekorian said.
People would be exempt from the mandate if they have medical conditions that restrict their ability to get vaccinated or a "sincerely held religious belief," which will be reviewed by the location the person is trying to enter.
People who are exempt would be able to use outdoor areas of the location, but if unavailable, they may be allowed to enter the indoor area by providing proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
The ordinance would also require people to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend outdoor events with 5,000 or more people, which would be stricter than the L.A. County requirement, which applies to outdoor events with 10,000 or more people.
"The stakes are way too high, and if you want to have fun, go to a bar, eat at a restaurant with your family, you're going to need proof of vaccination in order to do that," Martinez said before Wednesday's vote.
The ordinance would be similar to policies in West Hollywood, New York and San Francisco. West Hollywood's policy to require adult patrons entering many indoor businesses to submit proof of at least partial vaccination goes into effect on Oct. 7, with full vaccination required beginning Nov. 4.
Los Angeles County's vaccination requirement applies only to employees and patrons of indoor portions of bars, breweries, wineries and distilleries. That rule also requires at least partial vaccination beginning Oct. 7, with full vaccination required by Nov. 4.
Several people called in to the City Council meeting to oppose and support the requirement.
Shawn Osborne, who is on the executive committee of the Libertarian Party of Los Angeles County, said, "You have these fascist policies that you're trying to impose on people at a time when COVID cases are going down, and yet you're still going to do this, you're going to mandate things."
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer spoke Wednesday morning in response to people who think requirements should be loosened as cases decrease.
"The reality is we're not back to normal. There remain too many opportunities for the virus to spread and for new variants of concern to take hold," Ferrer said. "Our pandemic history has told us that we make the best progress when we actively take steps to reduce the spread of this virus until community transmission is low and vaccination coverage is much higher."
Others called in to support the vaccination requirement for indoor public space use, including a man who identified himself as a Council District 10 resident with a degree in biology from Caltech.
"I speak in support of the proposed vaccination ordinance. It is clear, thoughtful, science-based, and has good medical and religious exemption provisions," he said. "The ordinance will help end the current outbreak faster, limit future outbreaks, reduce strain on hospitals and healthcare workers and save lives."
The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce's Senior Vice President of Public Policy, Patricia Torres Bruno, called in to express the chamber's concern that there wouldn't be uniformity from city to city.
"We believe that a mandate is in order and have advocated for statewide guidance. A statewide mandate will ensure the consistent application and enforcement of guidance from one jurisdiction to the next. Short of statewide guidance, any local proposed ordinance will not be effective," she said.
While Los Angeles County continues to see falling numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and other metrics, the pace of residents being vaccinated remains relatively stagnant, and Ferrer on Tuesday warned that the pandemic will only end if that pace quickens.
As of Sept. 23, 77% of eligible county residents age 12 and over had received at least one dose of vaccine, and 69% are fully vaccinated.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fully vaccinated people can still contract COVID-19 and transmit it to others, although they are far less likely to develop symptoms, require hospitalization or die from the virus.
There is some evidence that fully vaccinated people will likely spread the more contagious Delta variant of the virus for less time than unvaccinated people, the CDC says.