‘If everyone would wear that mask, we wouldn't be in this mess’: Lancaster mayor on COVID

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski and Rosalie Atkinson

A mask abandoned on the ground. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris says, “I now have 74 dead people [in Lancaster], and I think that could have been substantially less. What they [LA County Department of Public Health] failed to do very early, that everyone knew they should do, was have a mask ordinance that was enforced.” Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

On Thursday, the City of Lancaster in the Antelope Valley issued a vote of no confidence in Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LADPH).

“In my opinion, she failed. And she has refused to accept the fact that she failed,” Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said during Thursday night’s City Council meeting. “And so she’s continuing to make the same mistakes that they made very early in the epidemic.”

Parris tells KCRW that throughout the pandemic, the LADPH didn’t do its job effectively.

“I now have 74 dead people [in Lancaster], and I think that could have been substantially less,” he says. “What they failed to do very early, that everyone knew they should do, was have a mask ordinance that was enforced.”

Lancaster also plans to see whether it can create its own public health department — one independent of the county. Parris references the early days of the pandemic, when mask mandates were first introduced.

“I was in the meetings with the 80-some mayors of LA County, and I brought that issue up and said, ‘Why aren’t we enforcing this?’ No exceptions. And what the response was is that, well, it would be better to just encourage people to wear masks. Look where it brought us."

In Lancaster, residents are required to wear masks at all times when they’re in public. Those who are caught without a mask are cited. Parris says compliance has been high.

“We have our building and safety inspectors going around all the stores. And we make it very clear to them: If you violate this rule, we're going to shut you down. We haven't had to shut anybody down.”

Parris, who is Republican, believes there should be a national mask mandate. He says his fellow Republicans have politicized the pandemic and mask wearing.

“They allowed masks to become a political statement in a political emblem, and that was inexcusable. And I don't care what political party you belong to. We are the only country in the world where wearing masks has become a political statement,” Parris says. “You can't hide behind some political loyalty test. It's a fact. And the sooner we recognize that, less people will die.”

Parris notes that the effort to create their own public health department isn’t aimed at taking power away from LA County or the Governor Gavin Newsom.

“If they wanted to do a directive ordinance that overshadowed us, they're certainly able to do that. Right now, let's be clear what we have going on. We have decisions being made in the backroom, without anybody voting on it. … The public has absolutely no input.“

But he notes that the LADPH, which follows CDC guidance, isn’t tailoring public health orders to the diverse COVID-19 circumstances LA is facing.

“It's a $1.2 billion agency. It seems to me they could have done at least what Lancaster did. We hired our own epidemiologist. We hired our own infectious disease doctor. We hired our own emergency room doctor. … That didn’t appear to have happened with LA County Public Health.”

Today, Parris says Lancaster hospitals are at 80% ICU capacity. Public health officials expect that number to increase in 10 days.

Moving forward, Parris says Lancaster, Palmdale, and Santa Clarita could come together as part of a joint powers authority. He notes it would bring together appointees to an independent decision-making body that would listen to both the science and the community in each city, as well as potentially enforce a mask wearing mandate.

“If you go to the CDC today, if you go to the New York Times today, that's what you'll find. If everyone would wear that mask, we wouldn't be in this mess.”