LOS ANGELES – Until the end of last month, alfresco dining – no masks required – was the closest thing to pre-pandemic normal for Los Angeles County’s 10 million people. But amid a record increase in hospitalizations and coronavirus cases, the county health department recently said alfresco dining should be stopped altogether for the first time since May.
This time, angry with the order and fearing the death knell for many of the 30,000 restaurants spread across the vast patchwork of 88 independent jurisdictions across the vast county, several cash-strapped municipalities pushed back and banded together – with votes to form their health services.
“It‘s kind of like a mini-secession,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “Their complaint is that the county has a unique prescription.”
The talks are a testament to growing frustration over a county-wide order that many elected officials said was inherently a hyperlocal issue.
While largely symbolic because there is no process for local jurisdictions to easily create their own health services, county city councils have passed resolutions in recent days to do just that – or to annex and join. a city that already has its own.
West Covina City Council was among the first to take such a vote. Lancaster, which has 158,000 residents in the high desert, followed suit last week, as did Beverly Hills. Today, the hard-hit Hawaiian Gardens, Commerce, Inglewood, West Hollywood and others are debating similar measures.
In West Covina, a San Fernando Valley hub of 105,000 people, Mayor Tony Wu called the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s outdoor dining ban, a three-week order that has started the night before Thanksgiving, the spark that sparked a state already in place. the throes of a major economic crisis.
“We did everything they told us to do and now telling us to stop is not correct,” Wu said. “Look, I’m an immigrant mayor trying to do what he wants. and that means a local policy for a local problem. ”
In Beverly Hills, which has seen tourism decline and faces a $ 27 million budget deficit from last year, Mayor Lester Friedman said the county had “lost touch” with Angelenos.
And in Hawaiian Gardens, a working-class Latino hamlet forced to close a casino that is the town’s main employer and income generator, town manager Ernie Hernandez said residents couldn’t afford to eat or pay their bills. “I don’t know what the correct answer is,” he said, “but quitting again doesn’t seem to be.
Statewide, daily case reports tripled in the past month, with more than 25,000 new infections reported on Tuesday. About 8,500 of them were in Los Angeles County, which now has more daily cases than at any other time in the pandemic, setting daily records for nearly a week in a row. As of Tuesday, the county had about 3,000 people hospitalized, nearly a quarter of them in intensive care units.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued a three-week lockdown order, which went into effect Monday for much of the state, which also banned outdoor dining and replaced Los Angeles County’s restrictions.
The county is an extension connected to the freeway, with the four million inhabitants of the city of Los Angeles an island in the interior. There are so many invisible borders to the dozens of municipalities within its boundaries that motorists often do not realize when entering or leaving one city – a confusion that could be exacerbated if there were multiple ordinances. and ordinances in the county.
Many towns in the county run their own law enforcement, fire, and other government departments, though only Pasadena and Long Beach have separate health departments – and the decision-making power that goes with them. (Pasadena offered al fresco dining until last week; Long Beach, citing an increase in coronavirus cases, did not.)
But local mayors lack authority over public schools, transport and public health – control that falls largely to the county watchdog, which upheld the health department’s decision.
Last week, Los Angeles County Judge James Chalfant temporarily agreed with the supervisory board, but ordered health officials to produce evidence in support of the ban. Then, in a decision on Tuesday, Justice Chalfant sided with the restaurants, limiting the ban to three weeks to avoid an “indefinite” closure order.
While the state’s ban still supersedes that decision, health officials now have about a week to provide a risk-benefit analysis to extend the shutdown. Epidemiologists have said prolonged gatherings without masks, even outdoors, are causing the spread.
Not so long ago, California elected officials – among the first to impose large-scale lockdowns – were proud of an approach that appeared to avoid the coronavirus.
Then came a series of dining blunders that undermined calls to avoid crowds, including Mr. Newsom and others who broke their own rules. In recent days, companies and officials have seen a disparity in the most recent eating ban, with outdoor film crew dining venues remaining open, for example, while restaurants a few feet away are n not have a single dinner.
Despite more than 1.3 million cases of the virus and an estimated 20,000 deaths statewide since March, anger is boiling, with recent protests against the new restrictions unfolding outside the homes of the health director county, county supervisors and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Many elected leaders said that while they had not yet figured out what it would take to create new health departments, they were moving forward nonetheless, with many city councils meeting this week to discuss a range of ideas, such as outsourcing services in an à la carte approach.
Setting up a department wouldn’t be easy – or without a high financial cost.
Health services inspect, assess and enforce restaurant safety, prepare for and respond to health emergencies and epidemics. Expensive to build from scratch – especially during a health crisis – they are staffed with shortage specialists during a pandemic.
In addition, cities would need approval from the state’s public health department. Erica Pan, the state’s acting public health official, who called this moment of spike in cases a “critical tipping point where inaction and division could lead to loss of life,” said there was currently no approval process for new local health jurisdictions.
The series of council decisions is not the first effort to decentralize the county system. The city of Los Angeles proposed a health service in 2013, but put the idea aside after learning it would take up to two years to build and cost at least $ 333 million a year to operate, a plan that former county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called “crazy, stupid” and “dangerous to public health”.
The financial and infrastructural demands were “impossible for us to implement,” said Miguel Santana, the city’s former administrative director who is now managing director of Fairplex, a non-profit space turned coronavirus testing center.
Los Angeles is currently projecting a budget deficit of $ 675 million by June and is forecasting significant cuts. Mr Garcetti has not spoken publicly of a new health department and has not responded to requests for comment, but representatives said he continued to support the existing framework.
“If LA didn’t feel the need to have its own department, with all its power, money and size, that says a lot,” said Sonenshein, who has published three books on Los Angeles politics. “The dissatisfaction that cities express should be taken seriously, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be all over again.”
Rather than starting from scratch, said Mayor James Butts of Inglewood, one option is regional alliances, such as a South Bay collective health agency that focuses on foodservice and retail.
South Bay City Council of Governments, a joint authority of 16 unincorporated Los Angeles and Los Angeles County cities and communities, is considering “annexing to a city that already has a health department.” , did he declare.
West Hollywood city councilor John D’Amico acknowledged that creating a health department would be difficult, but said elected leaders would continue to push, in hopes of moving the county forward towards ” sensible actions earlier to keep our community viable in 2021 ”.
While changing general ordinances may have merits, the virus knows no borders. And as hospitals brace for a post-Thanksgiving surge while awaiting vaccine shipments, the wisest choice may be to be patient, some elected leaders have said.
“By forming independent health services on the fly, how many expert health officials do you think there are out there to hire?” asked Mayor Kevin McKeown of Santa Monica, one of the few mayors aligned with the county. “How many cities without money could hire them?”
“There is so much coronavirus that being in a relatively open place with other people is not inherently safe,” he continued. “We’ve had a tremendous resurgence in Southern California. We haven’t seen the worst. Not yet.”