As teachers, health-care workers and state employees are added to California's list of personnel required to get the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo weekly testing, individual cities and businesses are deciding whether or not to follow suit to help slow the spread.

While cities like Long Beach, San Francisco, Los Angeles and nearby Goleta have announced mandates for either vaccination or weekly testing for city employees, Santa Maria officials say they have not implemented such requirements for their approximately 500 full- and part-time employees, including the fire and police departments.

The city is complying with Cal/OSHA guidelines, which require workplaces to document the vaccination status of employees via self attestation, and information about vaccine access is being shared with employees, city spokesman Mark van de Kamp said.

"If an employee does not attest to being fully vaccinated or declines to fill out the attestation, they must wear an approved N95 respirator, a cloth face covering of at least two layers, or a surgical mask when inside any city of Santa Maria building or driving in a car with another employee," van de Kamp said.

He declined to share what percentage of employees has indicated that they are vaccinated, citing privacy laws.

A recent health order from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department also requires all county residents age 2 and up to wear a mask in all indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.

Several members of the Santa Maria City Council, however, have continued to go mask-free during public meetings in the council chambers, despite the mandate.

Of the city's 10 departments, police and fire have arguably the greatest level of public interface. On the state and national level, experts and public safety officials have debated whether unvaccinated law enforcement personnel pose a health risk, with cities like Los Angeles reporting at least partial vaccination among half of their police and fire personnel as of June, according to the LA Times.

Santa Maria Fire Chief Todd Tuggle said that while firefighters are sometimes considered to be under the larger health-care umbrella due to their emergency medical response work, the state order requiring vaccinations for health-care workers does not explicitly include them.

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"Firefighters are not explicitly included in [the] California health order, so we are not requiring it," Tuggle said. "We may see some things change in the near future, but that's where we are today, and I've certainly encouraged my personnel to get the vaccine if they are healthy and able to, given that it does reduce the risk of infection and the impacts of a potential infection."

According to Tuggle, the vaccination rates in the city's fire department basically mirror those of the surrounding community, although he did not give specifics. Just over 63% of Santa Barbara County's eligible population — all residents 12 and over — are fully vaccinated, according to county data as of Wednesday.

While he was quick to pursue the vaccine in January, when emergency response employees became eligible, he said he understands the hesitations some of his colleagues have.

"Our population is pretty reflective of the population in general," Tuggle said. "To me, it was a simple cost-benefit. The risks of the vaccine itself on my health seemed pretty minimal."

Several members of the fire department also assisted with running vaccination clinics at Marian Regional Medical Center earlier this year.

Although vaccines or regular testing are not mandated, city officials are focused on other strategies to minimize exposures, van de Kamp said.  

"The city’s primary goal during the pandemic is the safety of its employees, customers and the community. The city emphasizes to its employees the importance of strictly following evolving safety plans at the workplace, and following health orders on their own time, to continue to avoid and minimize exposures," he said.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department is urging all residents age 12 and up to get the vaccine as the highly infectious delta variant surges throughout the county.

The vaccine is free and available to all residents regardless of documentation status. Residents can make an appointment or find a walk-in clinic location online at myturn.ca.gov.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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