Protest: Protesters gathered outside the home of Mayor Himmelrich to oppose a vaccine mandate. Matthew Hall

City Council voted to delay a final decision on a proposed COVID-19 mandate.

Will Santa Monica’s restaurants, gyms and salons begin requiring COVID-19 vaccines for employees and indoor customers? The question was left unresolved after a 3 a.m. City Council decision that was struck in the early hours of Wednesday, Jan. 12.

At the tail end of a nearly 10-hour marathon meeting, council members voted unanimously, 7-0, to allow an urgency ordinance that would mandate vaccinations for certain indoor spaces in Santa Monica to be drawn up by City Manager David White — should he and emergency staff see fit — that would then need to be approved by a two-thirds majority of council members at an upcoming meeting.

Despite the ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases, driven in large part by the virus’s new omicron variant, council members agreed that there was no need for a new vaccine policy to go into effect immediately.

“I would be, I think, more comfortable with this coming back to us as an emergency ordinance than I would be moving forward as a sort of emergency order,” Council Member Kristin McCowan said. “We’re super late to the game on this idea of expanding to restaurants, anyway; I think a lot of our businesses do this — a lot of the places I go to already do this.”

McCowan also pointed out the late hour.

“It is 2:30 in the morning,” McCowan said. “I would love to just have a little bit more time with this for council then to make a more final decision, but that’s just kind of where my head’s at, at 3 in the morning.”

The proposed order would require proof of full COVID-19 vaccination for employees and patrons ages 18 and up in indoor areas of Santa Monica gyms, restaurants, theaters, personal care facilities and certain government buildings, where possible. It was modeled after a similar ordinance that has been in effect in Los Angeles since the fall of 2021.

Enforcement for the mandate would be complaint-based, White said.

“When it comes to the issue of enforcement, very similar to how we do the mask mandate,” White said. “Everything’s going to be based on outreach and education. We will take enforcement from a complaint-based model. We will not be deploying police officers into the community to be proactively enforcing this; we’ll receive calls from the public and follow up.”

Council’s final vote came after a 90-minute hearing that included numerous public speakers urging against the proposed vaccine mandate. Public commenters who stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to share their concerns cited a wide range of factors — from demographic data that showed marginalized communities were less likely to be vaccinated, to allegations that vaccines contain nanomagnets pre-programmed to spread socialism — that made them oppose a vaccine order.

Some opponents took their protestations a step further, rallying outside the home of Mayor Sue Himmelrich. A small but vocal group of about a dozen people gathered outside her private residence earlier in the evening with a bullhorn to voice their opposition to the proposal. Santa Monica Police Department call logs show a disturbance call went out at around 7 p.m.; protesters remained outside Himmelrich’s home until after 9 p.m., when they moved to City Hall to continue their rally. Himmelrich and fellow council members Phil Brock and Christine Parra presented the proposal for the mandate.

The unanimous vote asking White to consider the urgency ordinance was not an indication of unanimity among Santa Monica’s civic leadership, with council members Oscar de la Torre and Lana Negrete each questioning the motivation and effectiveness of a potential order.

“I feel that this is a big mistake — that we’re down a path that is creating more division in our community,” de la Torre said. “Just in the short amount of time that people have heard about this proposal, we’ve had protests, you know, at people’s homes. The amount of people that are speaking, even at two in the morning right now, I mean, it’s an indication that people are very passionate about this issue. I just feel that we need to pull together.”

Brock said the move was popular among residents he had spoken to, including some restaurant owners.

“Two restaurants I went to — one in the Palisades, one in Santa Monica Canyon, since Jan. 1 — both said they’re not losing business. In fact, they felt they were gaining business because people felt safe,” Brock said. “When I talked to people here in Santa Monica, they felt they weren’t feeling safe, and in some cases, were going elsewhere to eat. So I’m trying to help our community be safe.

“I’m not trying to ask the city manager to put anything onerous on [business owners],” Brock continued. “And the city manager may come back and say, ‘You know what, there’s nothing that needs to be done.’ … two weeks from now or three weeks from now, we may be in a different situation.”

Should White and his staff determine a vaccine mandate should be considered, it would appear again before Santa Monica City Council no later than Feb. 8. It would then need a supermajority — two-thirds majority — to pass and become a city ordinance.

emily@smdp.com