LOS ANGELES – Before feasting on pancakes, burgers and milkshakes inside the Fred 62 diner in Los Angeles, patrons must now fork over proof of their COVID-19 vaccines for a waiter's inspection under new city coronavirus rules that are among the country's strictest.
The greasy spoon, famous for putting an LA spin on diner food, is one of thousands of businesses across the city where patrons were required to show proof of their vaccination status on Monday as the new measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus took effect.
For general manager Ian Hillan, the mandate is just one more thing the restaurant has to contend with during the pandemic. Staffing and supply chain issues — they recently had trouble getting napkins and certain kinds of beer — are more pressing problems.
In the last few weeks, Fred 62 finally reached pre-pandemic levels of patrons. Hillan is hoping the mandate might prove to be a good thing if more diners feel comfortable eating inside.
“It may just help us stay busier,” Hillan said.
The new rule covers businesses ranging from restaurants to shopping malls and theaters to nail and hair salons. Business trade groups say the mandate will sow confusion and could present safety concerns for employees tasked with checking customers’ vaccination status.
City officials are giving businesses time to acclimate to the new rules and will not begin inspections and enforcement until Nov. 29. Violators will be given a warning at first and fined $1,000 for a second offense. Additional violations will mean increased fines.
“These rules are in place to keep Angelenos safe, and help us get the economy back to full strength as quickly as possible," Harrison Wollman, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said in a statement. Garcetti tested positive for the virus last week.
"We are committed to working closely with local businesses, so that they have the information and resources they need to better protect their workers and customers,” the statement said.
The new rules caused little disruption at Blue Bottle Coffee in the city's Los Feliz neighborhood, where a sign on the front door reminded patrons to show proof of vaccination for permission to eat indoors.
Manager Matthew Cadena said the morning rush was mostly smooth as customers handed over their vaccine cards or showed photos of the cards on their cellphones.
“Most people are accommodating and understanding,” Cadena said.
The mandate was anticipated at Body Builders Gym in the Silverlake neighborhood, where employees for months have logged the vaccination status of patrons in an internal system so that proof is already verified the next time members come to the gym.
Manfred Del Cid, the gym’s assistant general manager, said many patrons volunteered to show their proof before the mandate started.
“It seems like our demographic wants to know they’re safe,” he said.
Los Angeles is among a growing number of cities across the U.S., including San Francisco and New York City, requiring people show proof of vaccination to enter businesses and venues.
But rules in the nation's second-most-populous city, called SafePassLA, apply to more types of businesses and other indoor locations including museums and convention centers.
Hundreds of people opposed to vaccination mandates for Los Angeles city and county workers rallied in a downtown park Monday. The “March for Freedom” was organized by a firefighter group that claims such mandates are unconstitutional.
The proof-of-vaccination regulations went into force as new infection cases have inched up in California, following a sharp decline from an August peak driven by the delta variant.
November was the time of year in 2020 when the worst spike of the pandemic was just beginning in California. By January of this year, 500 people were dying every day in the state.
Los Angeles became the state's infection epicenter and its hospitals were so overloaded with patients that ambulances idled outside with people struggling to breathe, waiting for beds to open up.
So many people died in Los Angeles that morgues reached capacity and refrigerated trucks were brought in to handle the overflow. That stark scene was playing out as coronavirus vaccines finally arrived and California and Los Angeles moved aggressively to inoculate people.
Among Los Angeles County’s roughly 10 million people, 80% of eligible residents have now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose and 71% of those eligible are fully vaccinated, according to public health officials.
To guard against anything resembling the January carnage, the Los Angeles City Council voted 11-2 last month to approve the ordinance requiring people 12 and older to be fully vaccinated to enter indoor public spaces including sports arenas, museums, spas, indoor city facilities and other locations.
Negative coronavirus tests within 72 hours of entry to those establishments are required for people with religious or medical exemptions for vaccinations. Customers without proof can still use outdoor facilities and can briefly enter a businesses to use restrooms or pick up food orders.
Business trade groups say the mandate will create confusion because Los Angeles County’s own vaccine rules — which apply to dozens of surrounding communities — are less sweeping. Cities are allowed to pass rules more stringent than the county’s.
“There’s a tremendous lack of clarity,” said Sarah Wiltfong, senior policy manager at the Los Angeles County Business Federation. For example, most retail shops are exempt. “But shopping malls and shopping centers are included, which of course includes retail shops,” she said.
Harassment of workers who must verify vaccinations is the top concern of the business federation’s members, Wiltfong said.
“This puts employees in a potential position of conflict, when they’re not necessarily trained to handle situations like that,” she said.
At Blue Bottle Coffee, employees ask customers if they want their order for “here or to go.” If they say “here,” the employee asks for vaccination proof. Those who do not show proof have to eat and drink at outdoor tables.
Coffee shop customer Danielle Evenson, of Los Angeles, had her vaccine card ready after the patron in front of her in line was asked for his. She said she “felt a little bit safer” after showing her card.
“If you want coffee badly enough, you’ll get it out immediately,” she said.