Health

L.A. County health inspectors enforce new vaccine mandates with training, not tickets


During the first weekend that Los Angeles County required some indoor businesses to verify the COVID-19 vaccination status of their patrons, health inspectors didn’t issue a single citation for noncompliance, but they did have to provide additional training to staff members at nearly one-fifth of the sites they visited.

Officials said the checks performed Oct. 8 to Oct. 10 were focused primarily on education rather than strict enforcement — a long-standing practice of the Public Health Department, particularly when rules have only recently gone into effect.

Getting a vaccination-verification system up and running “creates operational challenges, so our first priority was to assist and educate, rather than penalize the county’s business operators,” the department wrote in response to an inquiry from The Times. “Public health will continue to focus in the first couple of weeks on providing assistance so that business operators can be in full compliance as soon as possible.”

The county now requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination at indoor bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries, nightclubs and lounges. Patrons and employees need to show they have had at least one vaccine dose, and starting Nov. 4 they must be fully vaccinated.

Last weekend, county health inspectors visited 129 businesses that were subject to the new requirement. Of those, 24 needed training related to implementing the mandate, according to department officials.

At “all of the sites that got visited over the weekend, folks were eager to figure out how they could, in fact, go ahead and make sure that they were creating this extra layer of protection,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

However, with thousands of establishments throughout the county now under such mandates, inspectors have been able to get to only a handful so far. And throughout the pandemic, some businesses have fought fiercely against public health requirements or made a public show of flouting them.

Though it’s still early, Ferrer said the county hasn’t yet encountered that kind of resistance.

“Nobody was saying they weren’t going to be in compliance on the checks we’ve done,” she said during a briefing Thursday. “I’m sure there might be some of those places, and we would anticipate that.”

She also noted that the majority of the businesses that were visited were appropriately implementing the requirement — a trend she said continued throughout this week.

Health inspectors have not issued any citations related to the vaccine-verification rules.

“There are some places where there wasn’t good compliance and a good understanding of exactly how the compliance needed to work and what the systems might be that could be put in place,” Ferrer said.

L.A. County also has implemented new rules requiring patrons of outdoor events with 10,000 or more people — including venues such as Dodger Stadium, SoFi Stadium, Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain — to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test.

Ferrer said county inspectors were present during the recent playoff games at Dodger Stadium and observed fans getting checked for their vaccine or test documentation. The stadium also offered opportunities for customers to get a rapid test if they didn’t have either document, she said.

When asked about reports that some fans at Tuesday’s playoff game between the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants didn’t undergo the required screening, Ferrer said that she thought stadium officials were doing their best to be in full compliance and that it will be easier to work out issues going forward.

Ferrer said her reports indicated the vast majority of sports fans and theme park guests were showing up with the appropriate documents.

“Huge thanks to the fans and the patrons of our theme parks, and patrons of our music events and our larger theater events, for actually showing up well prepared,” she said. “We’re pleased with where we are, and we’re grateful for all the support that we’re getting from all of the event venues.”

Ferrer said the new orders are needed to “avoid another devastating winter surge.”

Questions regarding how COVID-19 health orders will be enforced are nothing new. Some law enforcement agencies have periodically declined to make it a priority, and although health departments have the authority to cite or fine scofflaws, they’ve generally focused on dispensing information rather than tickets.

L.A. County’s rules appear to be designed with that in mind. The vaccine-verification requirement applies only to settings that officials consider to be at higher risk for virus transmission and where employees should already be accustomed to checking patrons’ identification to ensure they’re of legal drinking age.

Enforcement concerns also have been raised around a new Los Angeles city ordinance that requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination at a much broader swath of businesses, including restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, gyms and hair and nail salons.

Unlike the county’s order, the city’s rules — which go into effect Nov. 8 — allow unvaccinated patrons to enter those indoor venues if no outdoor option is available and if they provide proof of a negative coronavirus test and a written note by the customer that they have a sincerely held religious belief against the vaccines.

The new restrictions are taking hold at a time when officials are largely expressing some cautious and measured optimism about the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of that stems from vaccination rates that are relatively robust, though not where most experts believe they need to be to thwart the pandemic.

About 61% of Californians — and 62% of Angelenos — have already been fully vaccinated.

That rate is much higher in some parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, where a few counties are lifting indoor mask requirements in places like gyms and offices as long as everyone there is vaccinated.

Ferrer has expressed concern about the pace of vaccinations in L.A. County. For the week that ended Sunday, L.A. County administered a little over 41,000 first doses of vaccines, a small decrease from the previous week.

“This does indicate that our vaccination progress is still going much more slowly than we need it to go,” Ferrer said. She has expressed hope that targeted vaccine requirements, such as those among schoolchildren and mandates imposed by employers, will help increase vaccination rates further.

Over the last week, L.A. County has reported an average of 987 new coronavirus cases per day, roughly one-fifth the rate during the height of the latest surge.

Countywide, 638 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized Thursday, down from a summertime high of nearly 1,800.

But despite the recent progress, both of those metrics remain well above the levels seen in mid-June, before the highly infectious Delta variant stormed onto the scene.

“Although we’re thankful to see the numbers declining, we still have substantial transmission. And we’re going to need to be vigilant if we want to reduce the spread of the virus,” Ferrer said.




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