The county has brought back restrictions, compounding challenges for the region’s most vulnerable residents


LA county broke records in recent days with worrying coronavirus outbreaks and fatality rates – the county reported three straight days of more than 2,100 new cases.

Worried the Fourth of July weekend may exacerbate the crisis, local health leaders have responded with an indefinite ban on indoor dining in restaurants, the partial closure of beaches, the shutdown of museums, and a new mask mandate for gyms.

Los Angeles had halted to a close in March, seeing rare traffic-free freeways, deserted boardwalks and beaches and a shuttered film industry. Residents poured into the streets for massive police protests in May, and the region’s economy slowly started to pick up, with businesses opening and Hollywood discussing how to resume. But the rising numbers have sparked fear of a turning tide.

Coronavirus cases are up across the state, with hospitalizations due to Covid-19 increasing 56% in just two weeks and some counties nearing surge capacity. Experts in LA are also particularly worried about a spike in hospitalizations, warning the county could run out of intensive care unit hospital beds within weeks. Across the county, there have been increasing delays for testing appointments despite the increasing jump in cases.

Human rights and labor groups meanwhile warn that the inequality in LA’s unemployment crisis is becoming increasingly severe as the partial and uncertain reopening plans are forcing low-wage and undocumented workers to return to dangerous jobs while limited government assistance dries up.

“This is the explosion we warned about,” said Andrew Noymer, associate professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. “There is a lot moving in the wrong direction.”

There’s no simple explanation for the boom in cases in LA which, with more than 100,000 cases and 3,000 deaths, accounts for half of California cases. Local officials have blamed private family gatherings and nightlife activity, and have said the massive police brutality protests may have contributed to the spread (though epidemiologists say outdoor transmission is more rare and have not found clear surges linked to demonstrations).

Noymer said it was possible California’s pandemic is on a later timetable than New York, which suffered by far the worst outbreak in the US earlier this spring. California and LA began reopening in phases at the end of May right when the virus was rapidly spreading in the state, he said.

Still, he did not predict officials would return to a full shutdown akin to lockdown restrictions this spring: “That is going to be very unpopular.”

Counties across the Golden State are pausing or rolling back reopening plans, with the roller coaster of changing regulations creating a steady stream of challenges for LA’s massive hospitality industry.

Brittney Valles, managing partner with Guerrilla Tacos in downtown LA, said she spent roughly $40,000 recently to prepare for indoor service: costs covering specialized training for new safety procedures, new protective and cleaning equipment, and construction to redesign the interior.

Ultimately, Guerrilla was reopened for indoor customers for five hours on Wednesday. It’s unclear when the ban could be lifted. Valles said she was frustrated political leaders decided to allow restaurants to restart given that it now seems clear it was premature and businesses will be pressured to pay back rent even if the revenue doesn’t return.

“We’re going back to the drawing board,” she said.

LeAna McKnight, owner of Stylist Lee Hair Studio in West Hollywood, said business has been slower than she hoped it would be since she reopened last month: “My clients are taking extra precautions and staying inside. They don’t feel comfortable leaving the house yet.” With lockdown officially over, her business was now expected to pay a range of fees she owes, such as credit card debt, she explained: “But if the clients aren’t coming, the debts are still going to be there.”

The current phase of a partially reopened economy was challenging to navigate, said Janel Bailey, of the LA Black Worker Center: “If things are back and forth with the opening and closing and the ambiguity, it’s not going to be clear if workers are still protected. People deserve safety and help. It’s a scary moment right now.”

The return of restrictions is compounding the challenges for the region’s most vulnerable residents.

“We are expecting a tsunami of evictions,” said Trinidad Ruiz, an LA Tenants Union organizer. LA has issued an eviction moratorium that allows renters 12 months to pay back rent they owe, he explained, but some landlordsstill try to find ways to remove renters who can’t pay.

Health workers are also worried about the more than 66,000 people living on the streets and in shelters. Neighboring Orange county has seen an increase in deaths of homeless people during the pandemic, though it’s unclear if the higher fatality rates are directly due to Covid or related to the loss of services and supports during shutdowns, said Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst with the ACLU. Some people lost access to free meal programs, for example. “There is just a multitude of hardships people are facing because of the inadequate response at all levels of government.” State efforts to move unhoused people into motel rooms has also been slow, she said.

LA is also home to one-third of California’s undocumented immigrant population – many of them employed in construction and manufacturing, the entertainment and food industry, and other service jobs. Those who have lost work are not collecting unemployment and have not gotten enough support from various local and state programs meant to aid them through the pandemic, said Maricela Morales, director of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy: “If they have kids, they are relying on lunch programs through schools … but we need income replacement for undocumented workers.”

Some live in overcrowded housing and are returning to jobs where the risk of contracting covid is high.

An LA factory where low-wage workers make masks is now suffering from a coronavirus outbreak. “Workers are going back to work because they need income,” said Daisy Gonzalez, an organizer with the Garment Worker Center, which is assisting infected workers. “These factories are crammed with people.”

“It’s just a perfect storm,” Morales said.