This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.

Residents, local businesses and employees throughout Orange County are navigating a new world of relatively no pandemic restrictions — compared to last Summer — as questions are being raised on how to verify if workers and customers are vaccinated.

The decision to verify people’s vaccination status is left to businesses and employers, except for large indoor venues with more than 5,000 people.

The questions also come after a series of confusing guidelines from California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards board members — a workplace safety regulatory body — over the past month.

While the workplace safety board members ultimately voted to allow fully vaccinated people drop their masks at work and align with the state Department of Public Health guidelines, the safety board didn’t touch on how exactly businesses could verify if their employees are vaccinated.

[Read: Fully Vaccinated Workers in OC Can Now Drop Their Masks While on the Job]

“‘Fully vaccinated’ means the employer has documented that the person received, at least 14 days prior, either the second dose in a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine series or a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine,” reads the guidelines.

Officials from the state Department of Industrial Relations said it’s largely up to employers on how they’ll verify if their workers are vaccinated. 

“Vaccination status must be documented. The revised [guidelines do] not specify a particular method. The employer must record the vaccination status for any employee not wearing a face covering indoors and this record must be kept confidential,” officials said in a June 24 email.

That means employers can check someone’s vaccination record or use an honor system, officials said — similar to the overall guidelines from the California Department of Public Health. 

“The state is kind of interesting — they’re giving businesses the option of self attestation, versus everyone showing proof. But to be perfectly safe, you probably have to assess that. It’s very hard for the public-facing businesses, like retailers and restaurants, etc., to ask the public to show proof of vaccine before they order a hamburger,” said Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council.

An employee at an Orange County family entertainment park sanitizes frequently touched surfaces. June, 15, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

But, Dunn said verifying vaccination status in workplaces like offices would be a good idea. 

“When you’re in an office setting or places with closer quarters indoors, it does make sense just to have every tool in the toolbox just to make it easier for employers to keep workers safe and to keep customers safe,” she said. 

Daniel Parker, an epidemiologist and public health expert at UC Irvine, echoed that sentiment.

“You can’t require everyone at the grocery store to be vaccinated, that sounds like an operational nightmare to me. But where I do see it is in workplaces, especially when you have people crammed in together in a tight space,” Parker said.

Given the rise of the Delta variant, Parker said making everyone wear masks in places where vaccine status can’t be verified is ideal because the variant appears to transmit easier.

“Of course we can’t check everybody’s records before they go into a grocery store, but you could still have face masks,” Parker said. “We could still work around these things.” 

He also noted there’s people who can’t take the vaccine that should be taken into consideration. 

“We all know somebody who’s been through cancer, or something similar, where they’re immunocompromised and they can’t take the vaccine. They’re still working in grocery stores. I feel like we’re forgetting that it’s not as simple as if you want the vaccine, you can get it.”

Daniel Parker, an epidemiologist and public health expert at UC Irvine

State officials rolled out a digital vaccine verification program last month so people can download their documents to their phone as the economy restarts and some businesses are asking their employees to verify their shot status. 

Gloria Alvarado, executive director of the OC Labor Federation, said she and other local labor leaders are pleased with the state’s vaccine documentation system. 

“So this tool is very helpful. Not only for workers, butk when you travel it’s going to make a big difference,” Alvarado said in a Wednesday phone interview, adding it would be helpful for international flights. 

“It’s just an additional system for people who chose to be vaccinated,” she said. 

Alvarado also said some employers require vaccine documentation, while others use the honor system before people can drop their masks at work.

Dunn said she’s seen a similar approach by local employers and added she doesn’t know of any businesses verifying the vaccine status of their customers. 

The digital documentation is also an issue that’s received a lot of local criticism from some Orange County residents. 

Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In May, OC Supervisors stopped the county Health Care Agency from looking into issuing people digital vaccine documents following waves of protests at board meetings. 

Many residents cited privacy concerns. 

Others compared the documents to the Holocaust, relating it to yellow stars Nazi Germany made Jews wear.

The comparisons drew the ire of local Jewish community leaders. 

[Read: OC Supervisors Cancel Digital Coronavirus Vaccine Records, Hundreds of People Rail Against Vaccine Passports & OC Jewish Community Calls For An End On Comparing Coronavirus Vaccine to Holocaust]

Dunn and Alvarado both said they wanted county Supervisors to approve the digital documentation service.

Meanwhile, Parker said he’s concerned a vaccine-resistant variant could pop up in areas of the world where the virus is spreading unimpeded. 

“There’s just so many cases globally — the pandemic is not over. What that means is all those cases happening in places where there’s no vaccine, few vaccines — it brings up lots of possibilities for variants to emerge where it could be more transmissible, more deadly, evade vaccines. So we need to stay vigilant.” 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.