San Diego Ending COVID-19 Emergency, City Employee Vaccine Mandate

A nurse prepares a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination in California. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The San Diego City Council voted Tuesday to end the city’s COVID-19 emergency declaration and a city employee vaccine mandate at the end of February.

Mayor Todd Gloria, City Attorney Mara Elliott and City Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert on Monday released a joint statement proposing to end the emergency declaration — which had been in effect since March 17, 2020, under then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration. Since that date, it has been renewed and extended multiple times by the San Diego City Council.

“Consistent with the state of California’s decision to lift the COVID- 19 state of emergency effective Feb. 28, 2023, the city of San Diego will look to take similar action as the conditions requiring a local emergency declaration have steadily improved,” Gloria, Elliott and von Wilpert said in the joint statement.

“As part of this action, we will also sunset our vaccine mandate for city employees due to a decrease in COVID-19 positive cases and hospitalizations, and 91% of city employees having been vaccinated.

“We find ourselves in this improved state because, by and large, San Diegans did their part in the fight against the pandemic by getting vaccinated and following public health guidance,” the statement added.

On Nov. 29, 2021, the City Council adopted the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, which required current and newly hired or appointed city employees, elected officials, board members and volunteers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

At the time the mandate was implemented, the COVID-19 case rate in the county for not fully vaccinated residents was three times higher than fully vaccinated residents, with the hospitalization rate for residents not fully vaccinated being six times higher than fully vaccinated residents. The vaccination rate for City of San Diego employees was 80.6%

As of Tuesday, the COVID-19 case rate in the county for not fully vaccinated residents is two times higher than fully vaccinated residents, with the hospitalization rate for residents not fully vaccinated being two times higher than fully vaccinated residents. The vaccination rate for city employees is 91%.

The mandate was challenged in court by citizens group ReOpen San Diego, which alleged that the mandate kept “an entire category of individuals from meaningful participation in city government” by way of barring unvaccinated city officials and volunteers from attendance at city meetings or business in city buildings.

By March 2022, the vaccination rate for city employees had increased to more than 90%, which allowed the city to accommodate around 790 religious or medical exemptions to its mandatory vaccination policy. City departments accommodated those employees by providing free weekly COVID-19 testing at the workplace. Employees who refused to comply with the weekly testing regimen were subject to termination.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Oct. 17, 2022 that he will end the COVID-19 state of emergency on Feb. 28 — finding that “California has the tools needed to continue fighting COVID-19, including vaccines and boosters, testing, treatments and other mitigation measures like masking and indoor ventilation,” a city report read.

Gloria, Elliott and von Wilpert thanked first responders, essential workers and those in the medical field for taking on the challenge of keeping the community safe and attempting to limit the spread of the virus.

“We will continue to treat COVID-19 with the seriousness it demands, but for now we are pleased by the success of our efforts to protect the health and safety of our employees and the public,” they said.

San Diego County government will end its COVID-19 emergency declaration on Feb. 28, in line with the state.

Dr. Wilma Wooten, county public health officer, said the county will continue efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, including testing and providing vaccinations.

Board Chair Nora Vargas said that while the state of emergency will officially end late next month, the pandemic is not over and “the county will adjust as we need to.”

Vargas said she was proud of how far the county had come in terms of public health awareness.