New 'safer-at-home' order on the horizon for LA County as COVID-19 cases spike

Los Angeles County's public health director said she doesn't expect the directive to be as sweeping as the one issued at the onset of the pandemic.
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected Tuesday to consider a possible new "targeted'' stay-at-home order in response to surging COVID-19 cases, but the county's public health director said she doesn't expect the directive to be as sweeping as the one issued at the onset of the pandemic.

The discussion comes on the day the county reported the highest number of daily deaths it has seen in the past 10 weeks. The county reported 51 deaths, the highest reported in one day since Sept. 9. It also reported 3,692 new coronavirus cases.

Hospitalizations, including those in the ICU also continue to rapidly increase. The county now has 1,575 people with COVID-19 currently hospitalized and 26% of them are in the ICU. Only two weeks earlier, there were 888 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

And one day earlier, the county announced its highest-ever single-day total of new cases, with 6,124.

Although about 1,500 of those cases were attributed to a backlog in test results from Sunday, the numbers pushed the five-day average of daily new cases above 4,500 -- the threshold set by the county last week to trigger a "targeted Safer At Home'' order.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the board will discuss the proposed order Tuesday to determine what exactly it will entail. County officials said last week it would generally allow only essential and emergency workers and those securing essential services to leave their homes.

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"It did require us making some decisions about closing some sectors, but I think again this will be a conversation with the board,'' Ferrer said.

If the county orders residents to stay home, it would be the first such action since mid-March when Gov. Gavin Newsom followed several counties and issued a statewide order that closed schools and severely restricted movement, except for essential workers or to buy groceries or pick up food.

"I know for sure we're not going back to all of the restrictions that were in place in the original Safer At Home order (issued at the beginning of the pandemic),'' Ferrer said. "For one thing, we've learned a lot more. We have much more capacity on testing now, which allows us to do a better job quickly identifying people who are positive. And to everyone's credit, this is a county that when we had a surge before was able to, in fact, get back to slowing the spread."

On Sunday, the county reached a 4,000 five-day daily average of cases, which was the previously announced threshold to cut off in-person dining at restaurants, wineries and breweries. As a result, the county announced Sunday afternoon that in-person dining would be prohibited beginning at 10 p.m. Wednesday, continuing for three weeks.

Although the Board of Supervisors signed off on the thresholds last week, Supervisor Kathryn Barger announced Monday morning that she plans to formally oppose the elimination of in-person dining. She cited estimates by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation that approximately 700,000 food industry jobs could be lost, with 75% of those losses affecting workers earning $50,000 or less annually.

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"These proposed measures by the Department of Public Health will further devastate local businesses and employees who have been asked to shoulder an unfair burden this year,'' Barger said in a statement.

Restaurants in Los Angeles have said there's a lack of evidence that serving food outdoors is contributing to the spike.

Barger also challenged the wisdom of halting dining outside restaurants - the only way they've been able to serve food since the earlier stay-home order. She said only 10-15% of positive COVID-19 cases are related to dining out with someone who tested positive, while more than half are connected to private social gatherings. Closing outdoor dining -- where compliance with health orders is high -- could also create the unintended consequence of prompting more private gatherings, she said.

"Businesses have made incredible sacrifices to align with safety protocols to remain open in order to pay their bills and feed their families,'' Barger said. "Increased case counts are not coming from businesses reopening, but from large gatherings where people aren't wearing masks. We aren't helpless in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and can protect ourselves and our neighbors by maintaining physical distancing and wearing face coverings.''

Ferrer, however, said that outbreaks in the first two weeks of the month doubled at food facilities, including restaurants, processing plants, bottlers, grocery stores and related businesses.

"We are seeing a significant number of violations around the physical distancing protocols, including violations at restaurants, bars breweries and wineries," Ferrer said.

Ferrer insisted in her Monday media briefing that the board was fully apprised last week of the planned restrictions, including the end to in person dining, and the county publicly announced the plans in a news release issued last week.

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Supervisor Sheila Kuehl echoed that sentiment, telling City News Service the board was in full agreement last Tuesday about the ban.

"All five of us agreed,'' Kuehl said. "So I was surprised to hear that Kathryn (Barger) had taken it upon herself to individually express opposition. I don't see any support for that position anywhere and certainly, I don't support it.

"Outdoor dining is probably more dangerous in terms of contagion than any other kind of business,'' Kuehl said.

She said diners at restaurants "sit for hours with no masks on'' and are in close proximity to servers and patrons walking by.

Ferrer said she had no insight on what the board might decide to do on Tuesday.

"The Board of Supervisors will make their own decisions (Tuesday) and anything is always possible,'' Ferrer said. "They're elected and in fact they can make a lot of different decisions as a board.''

Restaurant owners in Los Angeles who have had to adapt to ever-changing rules were trying to reinvent their businesses once again to keep afloat with only delivery and take-out.

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Owners said they were upset the county had taken the action when it seemed infections were more likely coming from private gatherings.

"The same people desperate to go to bars are going to party in their houses," said Brittney Valles, owner of Guerrilla Tacos in downtown Los Angeles. "You will never see them until they're spreading coronavirus around willy-nilly. It's insane."

Valles said she broke down Saturday as she realized it could be the last time - at least for a while - that she would see some of her 68 employees. It will be the third time she's had to furlough employees and she was trying to develop a plan to keep as many employed as possible.

She's already opened a companion coffee shop that offers breakfast burritos.

Greg Morena, who had to close one restaurant earlier in the year and has two in operations at the Santa Monica Pier, said he was trying to figure out his next step but was mainly dreading having to notify employees.

"To tell you, 'I can't employ you during the holidays,' to staff that has family and kids," Morena said. "I haven't figured that part out yet. It's the heaviest weight that I carry."

Business owners in some parts of the state have ignored rules requiring them to close or curtail operations. Others have challenged the orders in court.

The city of Long Beach, which maintains its own health department separate from the county, announced that it will follow in the county's footsteps and also end in-person dining Wednesday night.

Pasadena, which also has its own health agency, is still deciding. Some Pasadena City Council members indicated a desire Monday night to keep restaurants open for in-person dining, but City Manager Steve Mermell told the Pasadena Star-News that health officials were still weighing their options.

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The 6,124 new cases announced Monday by the county, along with 102 reported by Long Beach and 31 by Pasadena, lifted the county's cumulative total to 370,769. The county also announced eight new coronavirus-related deaths, while Pasadena added one, raising the county death toll to 7,447.

The number of people hospitalized rose to 1,473, up from 1,401 on Sunday. That's more than double the daily number in the beginning of October, when it was under 700.

In Los Angeles, the county of 10 million residents has had a disproportionately large share of the state's cases and deaths. Although it accounts for a quarter of the state's 40 million residents, it has about a third of the cases and more than a third of the deaths.

The rapid rise has taken public health officials by surprise, outpacing a troubling summer surge when average cases increased 43%.

"From October 31 through November 13, average daily cases increased 108% - which is a much more rapid surge in cases than what we saw in the summer," Ferrer said.

On Friday, the county implemented other restrictions that include limited indoor non-essential businesses such as retail stores, offices and personal care services to 25% occupancy; mandated advance appointments for customers at personal-care businesses and barred services that require customers to remove their face masks; and restricted outdoor gatherings to no more than 15 people from a maximum of three households.

The county previously issued guidance limiting gatherings to three households, but there was no numerical limit on attendees.

The state on Saturday night imposed a soft curfew, barring "nonessential work, movement and gatherings'' between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., continuing nightly until the morning of Dec. 21. Dr. Mark Ghaly, California's Health and Human Services secretary, said the state's order was not a hard curfew, indicating that people can still go outside of their homes, but they just shouldn't gather with others

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Asked about how restrictions will be enforced -- in light of Southern California sheriffs stating they won't be actively cracking down on health-order violations -- Ferrer said last week the county isn't relying on law enforcement, but rather hoping residents will take the urgency to heart to prevent local hospitals from being overrun.

Ferrer also noted that the surge in cases is not just the result of increased testing. She said the county's rising rate of positive tests shows that the virus is spreading more rapidly. The county's seven-day average daily positivity rate among those tested for the virus was 3.9% on Nov. 1, but it rose to 5.1% by Nov. 8 and stood at 7.1%. as of Saturday.

The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report.
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