Tin its week, Los Angeles embraced one of the strictest vaccination rules in the United States, requiring residents to show proof of full vaccination before entering restaurants, cinemas, gyms and other public spaces.
The latest rules are expected to increase vaccination rates in America’s second most populous city. But they also gave counter-reactions. On Monday, protesters, including municipal workers, police officers, dock workers, parents and teachers in front of City Hall, protested with signs reading “Freedom not power!” and “My body, my choice.”
“The benefit of mandates is they certainly work,” said Annette Regan, an expert in vaccine epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The downside of mandates is that they can certainly polarize individuals.”
This winter is expected to be an uncertain time for Los Angeles, which was hit by Covid-19 last winter. At one point last December, one person died of Covid every 20 minutes. The county’s director of public health, Barbara Ferrer, broke down in tears at a briefing on the “unforeseen loss” of human lives.
The region has been pushing for too strict Covid-19 prevention measures since then, and the new rules – combined with local, state and federal rules requiring city staff, health workers and public school children to be vaccinated – mean it will have some the most stringent vaccine mandates in the country.
Regan said that across the United States, including north of LA in San Francisco, mandates have proven effective in pushing many who were unsure of the vaccine to be vaccinated, and she expects mandates in LA will also help to increase immunization rates. On November 12, 73% of LA County residents, which include the city and surrounding areas, were fully vaccinated, and 80% were partially vaccinated.
But the mandates do not capture everyone.
The LA Police Department and a group of 500 local firefighters have already filed lawsuits over a mandate to be fully vaccinated by mid-December or undergo regular testing. The same is true of aggrieved employees in LA’s United School District, who oppose the requirement to be vaccinated by November 15th. And all the while, the city has been fighting for religious exceptions to the vaccine mandates, with residents pushing the already blurred lines defining “sincerely held” objections to the vaccine.
The LA police department has so far received 2,233 requests for religious exemption. Police Chief Michel Moore has promised to crack down on those who refuse vaccinations, but also said “to honor any request for an exception, any request for accommodation possible”.
“I think we in California are not the Wild West, but that is the origin of the state,” said Shira Shafir, an infectious epidemiologist at UCLA. “There is a little bit of this fierce individualistic streak and autonomy above all.”
In LA and in many other cities in the United States, this streak runs up against the realities of the pandemic and a genuine desire to end it.
Opposition to the mandates is growing as the region prepares for what could be another winter rise. After low infection rates throughout the summer, the number of infections has crept up again. Although the hospitalization rate remains relatively low and flat, LA county has a case rate of about 98 per. 100,000 inhabitants, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) characterizes as a “significant” level of community transfer.
For the vaccine-hesitant, powerful agents of disinformation and misinformation have triumphed over the reality of the horrors the region went through last winter, Shafir said.
Until the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many epidemiologists assumed that the effectiveness of vaccines was precisely what nourished the vaccination dust. In the case of measles, chickenpox or polio, “we no longer see the disease, only the risks of the vaccines,” Shafir said. “So the risk-benefit calculation in people’s minds is skewed.” But that was not the case for Covid-19’s impact in Los Angeles, she said. During the worst winter wave in January, the city brought in refrigerated trucks to hold dead bodies as morgues and funeral homes were flooded.
“People have seen what the infection looks like and how devastating it can be,” she said.
Yet significant sections of the population turn to religion and philosophy to shield themselves and their children from the demands they distrust.
“This is definitely an abuse of the religious exceptions,” said Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the University of California Hastings. “The religious exception was not designed to provide coverage for people who are afraid of vaccines. It was designed to protect people from real discrimination.”
The new requirements for patrons of local shops, restaurants and other businesses also include a religious exemption, although the city stipulates that it will be up to the individual businesses to decide whether they will respect such exceptions – to make restaurant servers, yoga instructors and bartenders de -facto bouncers. “And that’s a problem because your local barista has been trained to make an excellent cappuccino, but they have not been trained to verify compliance with the vaccine.” LA, like many cities across the United States, has seen its share of angry customers vehemently oppose mask mandates.
Workers at restaurants, bars, shops and theaters are also the ones most at risk of getting the virus and passing it on to their families, said Lorena Garcia, an associate professor of epidemiology at the UC Davis School of Medicine.
“Mandates like this are really about protecting these workers and their communities,” because an unvaccinated customer who brings the disease to a bartender would be all that was needed to not only infect this worker, but also their immunocompromised grandmother , their pregnant spouse or their young child. “The workers carry a heavy burden,” she said.
City officials are postponing enforcement until the end of November, after which companies could be fined thousands of dollars for non-compliance. On Friday, the city council voted to mitigate the original mandate by removing malls and shopping centers from the vaccine directive and requiring only proof of vaccination for those 12 years and older.