LA Walks A Tightrope, Reopening As Coronavirus Outbreak Worsens

Paige Austin

LOS ANGELES, CA — The tension between the competing pressures to protect public health from the coronavirus and kickstart the economy was on stark display Wednesday in Los Angeles, where the county announced permission for gyms, studios, museums, zoos and sporting events to reopen even as the COVID-19 rate of transmission continues to climb.

Los Angeles continued to see an uptick in the coronavirus outbreak Wednesday with 61 additional deaths reported and 1,275 new COVID-19 cases, giving the county a total of 67,064. The new deaths brought the county's overall number of fatalities to 2,768. Los Angeles is one of about 21 regions across the nation where the rate of infection is going up, and it remains the epicenter of the state's outbreak. Health officials reminded residents that the rate of transmission is likely to continue climbing in Los Angeles as more people leave their homes. Yet Los Angeles is opening up far faster than the Bay Area.

County officials announced permission for businesses such as gyms, museums, zoos, film studios and spectator-free sports arenas to open in Los Angeles County beginning Friday.

“At some point, we have to reopen,”County public health director Barbara Ferrer told the Los Angeles Times. “The name of the game is to make sure that when sectors are reopening, we’re taking every single precaution we can.”

Ferrer stressed that the reopening of more business sectors should not be seen as an indication the county is out of the woods in terms of the coronavirus pandemic, noting, "We're still in the middle of the woods and we have a lot of risk."

The county's case models again showed a slight uptick in the rate of coronavirus transmission -- in other words, the number of people a COVID-19-positive patient infects. That number, once averaging about three in the county, had dropped to below one before health officials began relaxing its health orders and authorized more businesses in the county to reopen.

Last week, the county's medical services director, Dr. Christina Ghaly, reported that the transmission rate had risen, and she said again Wednesday that the rate has increased to above one.

Ghaly said modeling predicts "the spread of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles County area is likely to increase gradually over time." She stressed that the predictions are based solely on actual hospitalization numbers, not on the increasing numbers of people who are leaving their homes and interacting with the public at newly opened businesses or -- more recently -- massive protests against police brutality.

Ghaly said the county still has adequate capacity in local hospitals to handle an increase in cases, but the county may run out of intensive-care unit beds in the next two to four weeks if the increase isn't reversed.

Despite the warnings, county officials said they are confident enough to move forward with a new health order that will be formally enacted Thursday, but will take effect Friday. The order will allow a new array of business sectors to reopen, including:

  • gyms and fitness centers;
  • professional sports venues without live audiences;
  • day camps;
  • museums and galleries;
  • zoos and aquariums;
  • campgrounds and RV parks;
  • outdoor recreation such as swimming pools;
  • music, film and television production; and
  • hotels for leisure travel.

"As with all businesses that are permitted to reopen, the health officer order contains protocols for reopening to ensure that it's done as safely as possible for employees, customers and residents," Ferrer said.

Those protocols will include mandatory face coverings and physical distancing wherever possible.

She said it will remain important for residents to adhere to the health restrictions when visiting any reopened business, and for the businesses themselves to enforce them.

"If sectors don't adhere to the protocols, there's a lot of risk," Ferrer said. "That's why we issue protocols. Those are directives. We ask everybody to take those very seriously. It is the one way for us to reopen, adding as much safety as possible. The more safety we can add, the less the risk is for any place of business or activity that people are engaging in. But it does depend a lot on everybody doing their part. Businesses need to do their part. Employees need to help each other, residents for sure need to do their part and customers need to do their part.

"We feel fairly confident that we're in a community where we've seen high levels of cooperation that got us here and we're counting on those very same high levels of cooperation to allow us to continue to make progress on the recovery journey," she said.

Health officials have continued to emphasize the need for residents to take precautions when they venture outside of their homes and associate with other people. Ghaly said the key to controlling the virus is not necessarily remaining home at all times, although "we should to the greatest extent possible," but taking steps to ensure safety while visiting businesses, going to work or attending protests.

"The key is making sure that the participation in these activities happens carefully and safely," she said.

City News Service and Patch Staffer Paige Austin contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on the Pacific Palisades Patch