‘People in LA County flunked.’ Sheila Kuehl on the return COVID closures

LA County restaurants have been shut down again for indoor dining. That’s because coronavirus cases are spreading at an alarming rate in California. There were nearly 5900 new cases statewide on Wednesday. About a third of those were in LA County. Hospitalization rates have also risen dramatically.

KCRW talks with LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl about this COVID-19 surge, balancing the health crisis with the economic crisis, possible fines for not wearing masks, and mixed messaging between the city and county over testing. 

KCRW: Knowing what we know now, and given that this recent surge started after the Memorial Day weekend (about a month ago), did LA County reopen too quickly and too much?

Sheila Kuehl: “Yes and no. The thing that I think people don't understand is that the United States is not a country that worries about taking care of every person in it. It's always been more kind of like ‘every man for himself.’ You don't have an underpinning for people's income like some Western European countries do. So your job is it. 

What we were seeing after the major shutdown was 3000, 4000, 5000 cars lined up for food giveaways. People [are] frightened because they didn’t know how they are supposed to go to the market and buy food when they had no revenue? Their health insurance wasn't kicking in when they weren't working. Everyone was really frightened. 

… We have got to help people get back to work. It wasn't just about ‘can you go and get a drink in a bar?’ It was about people working in bars and restaurants, people working in shops. So we said, ‘Okay we are willing to open this up, and these are the very strict rules.’ … The people in LA County flunked. They flunked. They weren't wearing masks. They weren't doing social distancing. So we have to go backwards.”

What does that mean? Do you have to issue fines to people who don't wear masks? 

“I don't know about the mask fines for individuals. But I'm bringing a motion on Tuesday to establish the ability to fine every business not in compliance. And the second time to shut them down. Because I think they have to take it much more seriously. You go into a bar and everybody's sitting next to each other on the stools without masks. Well, what are you thinking? 

Now that means that we have to have enough people to go out and inspect. And of course, since government has been starved over the past two decades, we are going to do our very best. So we were relying on a lot of income from sales, which of course are not happening as well. So we were hopefully going to be helped by the cities, and the governors asking them all, ‘Whenever you go to inspect anything, a construction site, tell us if the guys aren't wearing masks. Pull the permit.’”

Individual business owners must police their customers and enforce mask wearing?

“Yes and no. We're still going to be inspecting. The way that Barbara [Ferrer] knows 49% of the bars were not doing physical distancing is that they go out and rate them. And the way she knew that workers were not wearing face masks at 45% of the restaurants is they go out and inspect them. And we're going to do that more than ever.”

Do you have enough inspectors?

“No. It's a big county and we don't. That's why we're going to ask for help from the cities, and possibly be able to spend some of our CARES Act [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act] money for inspection. Because if we don't, the numbers are going to go up and up.”

Is there a plan being discussed about shutting everything down completely?

“No, there is no plan being discussed about shutting everything down. We never did. Obviously the markets stay open, the pharmacies stay open. There were a number of essential businesses that had to operate straight through. 

But it's possible — not yet happening — to say people can't go to malls anymore, sort of unraveling what the governor did. We followed the governor in each case, because so many of our cities are so close to other counties that we wanted to be in sync as much as possible.”

Did the governor fail in not providing a uniform set of restrictions for all counties?

“He didn't let the counties make up their own rules, except where they were more stringent. When he makes a statewide directive, it applies to all 58 counties. When he said yesterday, ‘No indoor restaurant dining,’ that applies to all 58 counties, I think.”

No, the governor’s order from Wednesday only applies to the 19 at-risk counties. 

“I think he thinks that's fair. You know how America is about fairness. Look, my county is doing fine. I'm Butte County, and I only have two cases. Don't make me shut everything down. 

So to win your way through the economic burdens that are caused by COVID, and the health burdens caused by COVID, I think it's not easy. 

I think it's easy to say, ‘Government should have done this or should not have done this.’ But I think if you had a vote, you'd find it 50/50 on almost everything. We're trying to be as stringent as we can while recognizing the economic problems. And now in LA County, we're going to go backwards with the governor.”

The order is for these businesses to be closed for three weeks or so.

“Yes, but I think we're going to have to go longer than that. There's just no question. So I think people should prepare to go longer.”

How much longer than three weeks?

“I don't know. I have to look at the numbers every day. If our cases stay above 2000 a day, then I'm not going back on the fourth week.”

The end of July is when the extra bump in unemployment benefits runs out.

“That's the problem that we've had with the federal government all along — is we are not getting the kind of support for people that we need. And so people become very frightened. They say, ‘I have to go back to work.’ They disobeyed the orders. They open [their business] surreptitiously. They let their customers know, ‘Come on in, nobody's looking.’ 

And that has been a total failure of the federal government to give us the kind of support we needed. We're just scrambling to try to take care of all the cases that are arising. And I think we're doing a pretty good job. … But it's a hard road to walk between the economic disaster and the health disaster.”

Several testing sites are going to be closed over the long holiday weekend. It's difficult to get appointments in some public testing sites. Why isn't the county increasing testing?

“It's difficult now to get them when they're open. … A lot of people want tests just because they want tests. The test costs $175 each. And there are plenty of kits available. We're trying to limit them to people with symptoms, or people over 65, or people who have underlying illnesses. And we want people to start going to their own physicians and the insurance companies to cover it. Because we will not be able to provide tests for all 10 million people in the county.”

Mayor Garcetti said anyone who wants a COVID-19 test can get one. Is there some mixed messaging going on?

“It's mixed because the city has its own idea about it. The county will not provide tests [to] everybody who wants one. And so our county sites …  want to know, ‘Are you showing symptoms? Why do you want a test?’ People don't even contact their own physicians, and most people are insured and fighting with the insurance companies who say, ‘We don't want to pay for tests.’ The county I think has taken the right middle ground, but it's overwhelmed on our website as well.”

—Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski