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Council Tables Vaccine Passports at Santa Monica Businesses

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By Jorge Casuso

January 12, 2022 -- After a nearly two-hour hearing that ended around 3 a.m. Wednesday, the City Council decided to delay a controversial vote to require vaccine passports at select Santa Monica businesses.

The item -- which could be taken up at an upcoming meeting -- spurred a public protest and drew heated opposition from all 18 speakers who waited until after 2 a.m. to weigh in on the highly divisive issue.

Placed on the agenda by Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Councilmembers Phil Brock and Christine Parra, the proposal would require employees and customers entering certain indoor facilities to show proof they are fully vaccinated.

The facilities include "establishments where food or beverages are served, gyms and fitness venues, entertainment and recreation venues, and personal care establishments," as well as "indoor City facilities to the extent possible."

The Council -- which had two members oppose the proposed mandate -- was unanimous in its decision to let the City Manager return "if necessary" with an emergency ordinance requiring a super-majority vote.

"I want to make sure we're making policy for the right reasons," said Councilmember Kristin McCowan. "It is 2:30 in the morning. I would love to have more time with this."

"I hate to make policy in the wee hours," said Councilmember Gleam Davis.

Supporters of the mandate stressed the urgency of following Los Angeles and Culver City's lead, especially during the wild spread of the Omicron variant, which is milder and less fatal than previous strains.

"Now that we're in this next surge, we need to do this to protect our constituents," said Himmelrich. "We're fighting an invisible enemy that you think we got it and we don't.

"What we'r worried about is that we could have another variant that is more lethal," Himmelrich said. "Nobody knows."

Brock -- who noted that 88 percent of Santa Monica residents are vaccinated and one--third have had a booster shot -- agreed.

"We need to step up for our residents," said Brock. "Whatever comes next is going to infect you, it's going to infect your neighbors and the next table at the restaurant."

Parra said the mandate would "protect our health care system," which is "being inundated by people who are unvaccinated.

"People are dying," Parra said. "They don't have to die. Those people could have been saved had our hospitals not been so inundated."

Some of the speakers who weighed in noted that the Omicron variant is spreading among the vaccinated as well as the unvaccinated and argued the vaccine will do lttle to curb the spread.

Imposing a mandate requiring vaccination proof, they argued, would only hurt struggling businesses and Black and Latino customers who have a much lower vaccination rate that the rest of the population.

Some of the callers called the proposed mandate a "draconian" and "unconstitutional" power grab by "dictators" and "tyrants" forcing citizens to take an unsafe vaccine.

"This is about control, this is not about saving people," one speaker said.

Councilmembers Lana Negrete and Oscar de la Torre said the testimony, which also included several hundred pages of emailed comments, shows how emotional and deeply divided the community is over the issue.

"I feel that this is a big mistake," de la Torre said. "We're going down a path that is creating more division in our community.

"The amount of people speaking at 2 in the morning indicates that people are passionate about this issue," de la Torre said. "We need to pull together," he said, "not pull people apart."

Negrete agreed. "I think we're opening a can of worms," she said. "We're just creating more strife and more stress."

Negrete and de la Torre also noted that the mandate may not be necessary, since the Omicron variant appears to be peaking and experts predict it will soon begin to wane.

"This is late in the game," said Negrete, who owns a business in the city. "Where is the expiration on this? In a few weeks this may look very different, and it will be moot."

Several Councilmembers worried about the budget impacts, since the mandate would need to be publicized and enforced.

"These ae things we haven't thought through," Negrete said, "and by the time we do, it may not matter anymore."

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