‘Outbreak didn't even bring these businesses into full compliance.’ How COVID spreads at LA workplaces

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

California broke its single-day record for new COVID-19 cases on Monday: more than 74,000. One of the country’s worst outbreaks is in LA County, where the positivity rate over the last week is nearing 20%. Many ICUs are full, understaffed, and facing a shortage of essential equipment like oxygen tanks. Paramedics have been ordered not to transport some patients with little chance of survival.

Workplace outbreaks are partially responsible for the recent surge in LA cases. Grocery stores, home improvement stores, department stores and TV shoots have become super spreader hotspots.

“Any store or any business you might think of where people are still going in every day, they're having cases,” says LA Times health reporter Soumya Karlamangla.

In particular, she points to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Target and Costco locations.

The most likely scenario, she explains, is that a person gets infected by someone they live with, then they go to work without knowing they have COVID-19, and they spread it in the break room or on the factory line.

Customers could pass the virus to each other too, she adds. “But our contact tracing is not precise enough to nail that down. When you have people who are asymptomatic, if you get COVID, you've maybe been to seven stores in the past two weeks, it's very hard to figure out where you got it.”

These stores don’t have to close when there’s a big outbreak unless the public health department orders them to do so, Karlamangla says.

But some stores have chosen to close. “I think there was a Best Buy in West Hollywood that had upwards of 20 staffers get sick. And they closed for six days during the holiday shopping season and disinfected the whole store. That's happened at a couple of Costco locations, but it's not mandatory.”

However, the number of stores closing is small compared to those open with outbreaks. “In LA County right now, there are more than 500 ongoing outbreaks at businesses, which means that it's been less than 14 days since their last case. So that's a huge, huge number,” she says.

Following and enforcing rules (or not)

A new California law went into effect on January 1 that says businesses must inform their employees if someone there tests positive. They have to notify the health department too, but not customers, Karlamangla says.

“There isn't great enforcement. You're supposed to inform the health department if there’s [sic] three cases and the cases appear to be linked. … Not three different people from, say, this one grocery store got COVID at home. But the three cases seem to [be] one person infected two other people.”

There’s also the rule saying businesses can operate at 20% capacity. Whether stores are following that depends on who you ask, according to Karlamangla.

“We sent some reporters to a couple of the malls during the height of the holiday shopping season. And we actually saw that in the stores, they seem to be following the rules. But the problem with that is that the malls themselves often aren't following the rules. So the store has to limit its capacity to 20%. But the communal space in the mall, whether it's indoor or outdoor, also has to do that. And there have been a lot of malls in LA that have been cited by the public health department for not maintaining their capacity below 20%.”

Meanwhile, many grocery store workers told her this capacity rule isn’t being followed at all. “There's always way too many people in the store. It's another situation where the rules exist, but I don't know how closely they're being followed or enforced.”

Karlamangla says the health department does inspections based on complaints. “LA County of 10 million people is supposed to be following these rules, and if there's no complaints, then they might not go check it out.”

She notes that even when inspectors showed up after an outbreak, 50% of businesses still weren’t strictly following rules. “That to me was shocking — that an outbreak didn't even bring these businesses into full compliance.”

People of color are hit hardest

The disproportionate effect on workers is showing up in statistics too. “This is a place where we're really kind of stuck. We see a death rate that's two times, if not three times, as high for Black and Latino residents compared to white residents in LA County. Same with the hospitalization rate,” Karlamangla says.

“Over the summer, when the cases were lower, even into the early fall, we kind of started to close that gap between Latino residents and the rest of the county's population. ... As the pandemic has gotten worse, towards the end of 2020 and now the beginning of 2021, it's gotten wider and wider. And that is largely attributed to the fact that many of those people are essential workers, and they are most at risk because they go into work every day. And also because we have all these outbreaks.”

Then maybe these workers are returning to crowded homes because housing prices are high.

“Once the case levels are this high in the community, you see clusters at work, and then you see transmission at home. … LA is the most overcrowded metro region in the nation in terms of how many people we stuffed into a home, not necessarily how many homes are on the street, but how much crowding there is within our home. It's very common in LA to see five people, four people living in a one-bedroom apartment. How can you quarantine from anyone if those are your living conditions?”