COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising in LA. What the Board of Supervisors plans to do

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People walk past a “beach closed” sign during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 4, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Ringo Chiu/File Photo.

More than 10% of coronavirus tests in LA have come back positive over the past week. Hospitalizations in the county are at their highest since the pandemic began in March. Deaths are inching up. The city is failing the state’s benchmark for reopening, but gyms, hair salons, and retail stores are still operating. 

LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas talks about whether businesses must shut down again, getting Angelenos to comply with safety orders, and balancing public health with economic needs.

Mark Ridley-Thomas represents District 2, which includes parts of downtown LA, Koreatown, Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills and Culver City.

KCRW: Why is the county allowing these businesses to stay open while the virus surges?

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas: “We want to be as clear and as consistent as we possibly can be — with regard to balancing the huge challenges that are before us. It was not anticipated that there would be a surge. 

 Be reminded of the fact, going back to early March, there was a sense that there would be a surge and hospitals prepared. The county health departments did, from mental health to health services and to public health. Three different departments. They went to work, the lead department being the Public Health Department.

Then to our great surprise, we were not overwhelmed in this environment in terms of hospitalizations. And it gave some level of confidence that we could begin to relax. We did that in coordination with the state. We issued procedures that followed the state's lead. And only in instances where we thought that that would be problematic for Los Angeles County did we differ by appealing to the state for certain kinds of dispensation.”

The state threshold for reopening is fewer than 8% of positive tests. We are now over 10%. Is it time to reconsider and close some businesses?

“There's no way to deny the fact that all of this has to be revisited. It is an unfortunate turn of events, undeniably. But there's a sense in which we are working as hard as is humanly possible to encourage people to social distance, to encourage people to use the mask. And there's a lot of resistance in the environment. 

And so the question is: How do you get people to comply and behave in their own best interest and the best interests of the communities of which they are a part? … Now you can impose this. But the question is: Will people be willing to follow the orders? 

We're trying as best as possible to move this forward, not only the county of Los Angeles, other counties throughout the state. The governor himself is trying to measure how we can get to efficacy in a way that doesn't end up compounding the economic crisis in which the state and our counties find themselves.”

Extra unemployment benefits are running out at the end of the month. How much do you think about that as you weigh the public health problems versus the economic needs?

“We have to figure out how to reconcile these tensions. We did in effect, relax the orders only to find that the virus came roaring back. This was not anticipated. And it's been acknowledged that we can't do that again. And then the question is: Can we get this to settle down? That is yet unclear, but there are multiple factors here. 

We have less than helpful communication from the White House on this. We have a range of concerns in terms of how schools come online. … Unemployment is rising to Depression-like levels across the nation, which will push homelessness, which is a crisis all unto itself. And we are then faced with big, big, big challenges. So this is not at all simple. 

The Department of Public Health that is responsible for the enforcement and inspection is working overtime to deal with businesses that are not in compliance and so forth. And yet we are trying to respect the fact that people do need to get to work.”

Why not shut down to get a handle on this? The county is apparently issuing conflicting messages by urging people to stay home, and yet allowing businesses, beaches, and trails to stay open.

“There is no denying the fact that there are conflicting messages being communicated. It's in the interest of trying to find or arrive at a place that is the most reasonable and that maximizes compliance.”

What can we expect from the Board of Supervisors next week? 

“To pay close attention to the data, in terms of what the testing is looking like and what the death rate looks like. And to have to make very, very tough decisions. But when doing so, if we precipitate a lack of compliance, then the question is, where do we go? 

Say for example, the startling circumstance we had when we said, ‘We're going to close the beaches over the Fourth of July weekend.’ … You have to have enforcement in order to make sure that people are in compliance. Well, the sheriff issued a statement that he would not enforce the order — would not — at the beaches.

… You have to have full cooperation from everyone in order for it to work. And so this is massive. It's coming very, very fast. We're trying to respect the fact that if businesses continue to fall down, that is not good for communities. 

And at the same time, we have to make sure that people are safe when they go to a particular business, no matter what that business may be, a restaurant, a bank, etc. And we have looked specifically at those businesses that we know are most problematic, for example, bars. We've tried to be as reasonable as we can, but we had to say, ‘Absolutely not, they have to be closed down.’ There was some pushback on that.”

— Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy