You don't want to celebrate Christmas in an ER: Sheila Kuehl on LA COVID spike and new restrictions

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski and Nihar Patel

California set a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations over the weekend — nearly 7500 patients. That’s triple the number from a month ago. Officials estimate that one in every 145 people in LA County is now infected.

Starting today until at least December 20, people in LA County are not allowed to gather with non-household members both indoors and outdoors. Grocery and retail stores must further limit how many customers can come in at a time. Playgrounds are closed. Zoos, museums, and gyms are outdoor-only and at 50% capacity. Restaurants are takeout and delivery only. Hiking trails and beaches are open, but people must wear masks and stay six feet away from non-household members.  

People are allowed to attend a protest or a church service because they’re protected by the First Amendment.

A 10 p.m. curfew remains for everyone but essential workers.

KCRW talks about these new orders with LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. 

KCRW: There’s a lot of worry that these rules will kill a lot of restaurants and retail stores. Is that inevitable and the price to pay for keeping people safe?

Sheila Kuehl: “That's what we heard in March and April. Remember, we had a total shutdown then. You couldn't do anything, but maybe order online and then go pick it up at the door. And there were a lot more things closed than there are now. 

What we tried to do this time with the order was to keep as many businesses open as possible, but very limited in terms of the time that you would spend inside and how many people you would come in contact with. 

And the main problem about restaurants, honestly, is it's the only kind of business in the entire county where people were allowed to stay for an hour or more without a mask. And naturally, you can't eat with a mask on. So everybody said, ‘Well, sure, but we'll keep our distance.’ But you know, when the server comes over to take your order, the busboy comes and puts down the bread and butter, they're way closer than six feet to you, and you don't even have a mask on. So you just have one infected person in a restaurant, and boom, everybody else [is], including the people who walked by your table on the way to their table, so it was inevitable. 

But they didn't go out of business before. They adapted. They're doing takeout, they're doing delivery, they're doing everything they can. And I think they'll survive this as well.”

How do you enforce these rules, especially inside homes? 

“Very difficult to enforce the in-home restrictions. We don't have a house police where we go door to door and bang on the door. Sometimes neighbors will say, ‘There's 30 or 40 people in the backyard next door, I can't see how that's one household.’ And maybe the sheriff or the police will go and just knock on the door, it's not a crime, and say, ‘This is against the health laws, you're really endangering all these people. Could you please break it up?’ 

It's much easier, obviously, to control businesses, which are licensed and have permits, than really the personal. 

We just ask everybody, please, the number of people in the hospitals in LA County has doubled in two weeks. Doubled. And even though we still have beds, the health care workers themselves are getting not only exhausted and worn out, but infected themselves with the disease. So we don't even have enough people to check you in. 

Anybody that wants to break these rules, why don't you go to your local hospital and just see what's going on? The ER is overflowing, the halls are overflowing. It is a crisis. And unless we all participate in making it better, it's just going to get worse and worse.”

There are people who say, ‘I figured out how to do this safely, I can have a socially distanced meal outside with friends, I've been doing it since these rules were implemented back in March. I can go on a socially distanced walk or trip to the beach. And frankly, it's been a long time. And it's unhealthy mentally not to be able to socialize.’ What’s your response to them?

“Well, we didn't close the beaches or the trails, they're still the same. And we're hoping that you will get your exercise. … But the difference is everybody really needs to keep their masks on. If you want to have a few people over in your backyard, and they are part of your pod … everybody's got to keep their masks on. 

Because they're learning more every day about how much further than six feet this can be spread if you're talking loudly, or you just happen to cough without covering your mouth or whatever. I mean, if we could see these droplets in the air every time we talked, we would understand better. 

So I'm saying to people, ‘Look, I'm not going to come with the police and arrest you, but really do your best. But sure, get your exercise.’”

The rules are you can’t socialize with non-household members, even outdoors?

“That is correct. I'm just saying that if people say, ‘Oh, but what about these people I've been seeing all along?’ If it's two people and you consider them part of your household, I'm not going to say no. I don't want to get in trouble here, but I mean, you know, I live alone. So I have one other person who's in my pod who also lives alone. And so literally, we don't live together but we've been in the pod since March. So I know who they're in contact with and they know who I'm in contact with, which is really nobody.” 

Basically, you're hoping people will act accordingly under the rules, and you're relying on the honor system. But it seems like this isn’t enough because of this COVID spike. 

“Well, I tell you the things we can't control though, I really want us to control very strongly. There are a number of restaurants that said, ‘I'm not shutting down.’ So I'm saying, ‘Okay, I'm sending a health officer out there, and we're pulling your permit, just try to open up when COVID is over.’ I mean, you cannot put people in danger. And it's the same with any other kind of business that we do have some control over, where we're saying to people in your own home, ‘You don't want to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah in an emergency room. And frankly, you're at risk. Don't put your kids at risk. For God's sake, don't put your grandparents at risk.’ This is serious. You don't escape it just by magical thinking that, 'Oh, we're far enough apart … and I had a test last week.’ Well, that doesn’t help. You could still have it now.”

Pasadena is still allowing outdoor dining at restaurants. I understand they're considering halting that. But still, Pasadena is in LA County, it has its own health department. So why don't the county rules supersede Pasadena health department’s rules?

“Because they are their separate health department. Only Pasadena and Long Beach have their own health department. Long Beach, of course, closed its restaurants. And it might make a difference that the mayor of Long Beach lost both of his parents to COVID. So perhaps Long Beach is actually seeing the risk. 

I don't know what's wrong with Pasadena. I think that many of the health organizations did speak out on Friday, including Kaiser that has a new medical school in Pasadena. They're concerned when people don't take it seriously enough. You should not be going out and sitting at a dining table with your mask off, infecting all the workers. Actually many of them don't live in Pasadena. They live in the neighborhoods with the highest rate of infection, you know, in East LA and the east part of the valley. They're the hospitality and restaurant workers. And they're also put at risk. 

… We're asking Pasadena to change their mind, but we don't have authority over them. And again, it's kind of like do the right thing. You're coming into our hospitals. Not all the hospitals are in Pasadena.”