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California lawmakers grapple with whether to impose a statewide COVID-19 vaccination mandate

Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland)
Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) wears a face mask as she calls on lawmakers to approve a measure to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow state legislators to vote remotely during emergencies.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

After ceding power to Gov. Gavin Newsom throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, state lawmakers are now considering one of the most politically challenging government mandates yet: requiring Californians to show proof of vaccination to enter many indoor business establishments and forcing workers to get vaccinated or regularly tested.

Democratic legislators leading the conversation at the state Capitol believe mandates provide an opportunity to improve vaccination rates and help lessen the effects of the Delta variant spreading through California.

But the proposal, which is still in draft form and has not been introduced in a bill, requires weighing serious considerations such as enforcement, costs, implementation, the political will of the state Legislature and how such a sweeping statewide mandate could help or hurt Newsom’s chances of beating back a possible recall.

“There’s literally nothing more personal than taking the vaccine shot, so it’s going to elicit a reaction, no matter what,” said Robin Swanson, a Democratic political consultant. “I think that the Legislature doing this takes a little bit of heat off of the governor, but at the end of the day, the buck is always going to stop with the governor’s office.”

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Since the original stay-at-home order was implemented last year, the governor has largely guided the state’s response to the pandemic and implemented most statewide business restrictions, mask mandates and other rules through executive order or the California Department of Public Health. The state has already ordered that healthcare workers must be fully vaccinated and required school employees and state workers to get vaccinated or submit to regular COVID-19 tests.

For the time being, Newsom and his aides are quietly watching and providing technical assistance as Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) and a cohort of her Democratic colleagues in the state Senate and Assembly talk with labor, business and other interests about a possible vaccination mandate, according to an administration official who asked for anonymity to speak about the matter.

California hospitalizations for COVID-19 have continued to rise, reaching more than 8,300 patients

Newsom’s office has not taken a position on the idea.

“We are still not sure if we are going to introduce legislation at the end of session or in January,” Wicks said in an interview Thursday. “There are a lot of conversations around what is the right policy.”

Whether such legislation is introduced and passes or not, the discussion about vaccination mandates is helping to inform Newsom and his team as they work to respond to the rapidly changing COVID-19 landscape, the administration official said.

With just two weeks left before the Legislature adjourns for the year, debate over the proposal threatens to swallow the end of session in Sacramento and potentially prevent lawmakers from addressing other important issues.

Leaked unofficial drafts of the bill language had already inspired criticism on Wednesday and brought back memories of years previous, when protesters swarmed the state Capitol in opposition to vaccine bills and one threw a menstrual cup on the Senate floor. Wicks said Thursday that leaked draft language “isn’t how we normally do policy making.”

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California will enact sweeping new restrictions on medical exemptions for vaccines under bills signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday.

“I did warn Assemblywoman Wicks that anytime you talk about vaccines, people take notice,” said Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), whose name appears as a co-author on Wicks’ draft proposal and who introduced a series of bills throughout his legislative career to strengthen vaccination requirements for schools that made him a routine target of anti-vaccine protesters.

Pan, a pediatrician, said lawmakers are exploring various measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 and improve vaccination rates.

Sacramento Police cited an anti-vaccine activist for assaulting vaccine bill author state Sen. Richard Pan on Wednesday near the Capitol.

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He said passing a vaccine bill this late in the legislative session is “a heavy lift,” but that there is enough uncertainty about what will happen in the coming months to potentially reach a consensus to act now. Lawmakers wrap up their session on Sept. 10. Newsom faces a recall election on Sept. 14.

“We are going to be out until January and you look at the fact that kids are in school and winter is coming,” Pan said. “We are hearing from folks that it would be helpful for the state to create rules and have guidance. At this point, it’s an ongoing discussion on whether it’s best to codify these things.”

Critics of vaccination mandates have already begun launching their opposition, which comes shortly after protests at the state Capitol against California’s requirement that healthcare workers be vaccinated.

“There will be an extremely large pushback,” said Melissa Floyd of Immunity Education Group, which opposes mandates.

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Floyd said one aspect that lawmakers will have to consider is mandating a vaccine with boosters.

“How many boosters will you need, how often?” Floyd said. “There will never be a time when it’s sufficient. How do you monitor all this, and how can you assume everyone vaccinated has immunity?”

The Times obtained a draft of AB 455, which was dated Thursday. That version calls for anyone entering a bar, restaurant, gym, hotel, event center or sports arena to show proof that he or she is fully vaccinated.

It also calls for all employees, job applicants and independent contractors to show proof that they are fully vaccinated or take a weekly COVID-19 test with proof of a negative result. The tests would be paid for by the employee’s existing health insurance or through federal, state and local funds, according to the draft.

Employers would be required to provide an additional 24 hours of sick leave for workers to go to vaccine appointments, or if they experience symptoms related to the shot.

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Those who are too young to be vaccinated or a person with a valid medical reason would be exempt from the provisions, according to the draft language. The California Department of Public Health would be tasked with determining by Nov. 1 how to enforce the requirements.

The draft bill is listed as an urgency measure, which would allow it to take effect immediately if passed by two-thirds of lawmakers and signed by the governor.

Under Wicks’ plan, an Assembly bill currently in the state Senate would need to be amended with the language to require a vaccination mandate.

Sources in the Legislature noted that Senate leadership has said they would allow the bill to be introduced only if the governor, Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) reach an agreement on the legislation first, it receives the support of labor unions and the California Chamber of Commerce, and if Wicks confirms there are enough “yes” votes from two-thirds of the lawmakers in each house.

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At the Capitol, many tough issues become law only with the backing of labor or business, and winning over both interests could be a tall order for Democrats.

Labor unions in California are concerned about the possibility that workers could be responsible for paying for weekly COVID-19 tests if they remain unvaccinated and some have argued that such a workplace mandate should be subject to collective bargaining.

“We’ve been having conversations with Assemblymember Wicks and have seen the outlines of what she’s proposing,” said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation. “There’s just a lot of questions that need to be answered before we have a uniform position throughout the labor movement in California because this could have vastly different effects on different segments of workers.”

Swanson warned that politicians shouldn’t look at opposition to vaccinations as falling cleanly within party lines or treat the issue as a political football.

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A conversation about mandates was bound to happen sooner rather than later, she said, and though the timing of the potential legislation means it could be used as a tool to inspire voters who are opposed to mandates to support the recall, it’s an issue that could present challenges whenever it is addressed.

“There’s another election just around the corner in November of 2022,” Swanson said. “It’s not going to go away.”


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