Barbara Ferrer on COVID safety during Halloween and Thanksgiving, and reaching tier two for reopenings

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COVID-19 numbers have been on the rise across the country, and California is a tale of two very different cities. San Francisco saw some of the earliest cases this year, and it’s now in the least restrictive tier when it comes to openings. LA County is still in the purple tier, the most restrictive. KCRW checks in with Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

“We still have a significant amount of spread of COVID-19 here in LA County. But if you compare where we are today to where we were at the beginning of August, we’ve made great progress,” she says. 

Holiday safety 

With Halloween next week, what is Ferrer’s guidance for celebrating with family and friends? People shouldn’t gather indoors with non-household members, but they may gather outside with two other households, she says. Whether this will change for Thanksgiving, she says she doesn’t know.

Safe alternatives for Halloween do exist, she notes. “Dressing up, doing video parades … doing car parades, decorating your car, decorating your house. We’re not recommending trick-or-treating. … The idea of crowding on people’s porches, the idea of having your child stick their hands in a communal box or container of candy and then bringing that candy home — none of that has appeal right now. None of it is necessary, and certainly all involves risk.” 

She says Thanksgiving will be tougher partly because seeing family may require traveling, which itself has risks. 

Reopening schools

Being in the purple tier, LA isn’t allowed to reopen for in-person instruction for all students. Ferrer says two possibilities exist right now: bringing back small groups of students with high needs, including those with special needs, English learners, those scheduling with virtual learning. “Those children can come back for in-person support and services on your campuses right now. We have about 35,000 students that are currently back on their campuses, receiving those services and support in small groups.” 

The state also just approved four waivers in LA County, she says. Those four schools will be able to reopen for full in-classroom instruction for students in grades TK-2.

Reaching tier two 

What will it take for LA to get out of the most restrictive tier that it’s currently in? 

“I’m cautiously optimistic but a little bit troubled by the small increase we saw in cases last week. And if we continue to see a small increase in cases, it just takes us that much longer to get to tier two. … One thing that’s pretty clear to us is small gatherings driving the increases. … So we need to get people more comfortable with following the rules when they are doing these small gatherings, making sure they’re outside,” she says. 

Ferrer is also looking at outbreaks at workplaces, and she says it’s tough to get compliance in certain sectors. Beauty salons have been doing a good job, however. “I do want to thank the nail salons, the hair salons. We visited a lot of them. The vast majority of them were in full compliance with the protocols and directives for safety.” 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal