Officials face backlash as anger over COVID-19 shutdowns intensifies in some quarters

Lila Seidman, Jaclyn Cosgrove
SANTA MONICA, CA - DECEMBER 01, 2020 - A handful of people protest across the street from the home of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl in Santa Monica on December 1, 2020. Kuehl is one of the board members that voted in favor of stricter lockdown measures and warned about the dangers of eating at restaurants and voted to support the shutdown of in-person dining in Los Angeles County. Kuehl was spotted dining at Il Forno Trattoria in Santa Monica on the day she voted in favor of more restrictions and before the shutdown was implemented. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A handful of people protest across the street from the home of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl in Santa Monica. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

With coronavirus cases soaring to dangerous new levels in Los Angeles County, some top officials are facing backlash over their push to slow the surge by restricting public activities.

On Sunday, protesters marched in front of the home of Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

Days later, a handful of people gathered outside Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl's house in Santa Monica.

Both demonstrations, in which the majority of people were unmasked, were fairly small, but they reflect a growing political divide and vitriol over restrictions from a segment of the population weary and skeptical of such measures despite the growing health risk.

Tuesday's protest at Kuehl's home comes on the heels of news that she dined out at a Santa Monica restaurant last Tuesday, hours after she voted to uphold a ban on outdoor dining in the county.

Kuehl did not violate any county rules because outdoor dining was still permitted at the time.

Kuehl confirmed that she did dine alfresco at Il Forno Trattoria near her house in Santa Monica on the day she and two other county supervisors voted to shut down outdoor dining.

"She loves Il Forno, has been saddened to see it, like so many restaurants, suffer from a decline in revenue," Kuehl's communications director, Barbara Osborn, said in a statement.

According to the statement, Kuehl took appropriate precautions while dining on the last day permissible, "and sadly will not dine there again until our public health orders permit."

The closure was imposed by L.A. County Department of Public Health officials, not the supervisors, but there was a motion at the Nov. 24 meeting by Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn to overturn the recommendation. The motion, however, was voted down, with Kuehl and Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas opposing it.

“This is the only business that allows its customers to remain, and often for quite a while, unmasked,” Kuehl said of restaurants at the meeting last week. “And that, I think, is enough to single it out right there. We tried, but the numbers have gone up.”

But protesters did not agree.

"If you make a rule, you should follow it yourself," screamed one woman while standing on the sidewalk across from Kuehl's house Tuesday on a quiet Santa Monica street. The woman, like a half-dozen or so other protesters, declined to give her name.

Another protester said county health officials weren't providing enough evidence to justify the dining ban, along with other restrictions, including a slightly less strict stay-at-home order than what was mandated in the spring.

"There's no proof that I'm aware of that outdoor dining is dangerous," she said. "And all the people who are working [at the restaurants], many of them are low-income people; they're going to be penalized the most."

It was a similar argument made by a large industry group representing restaurants in a suit against county health officials last week. However, an L.A. County Superior Court judge rejected the California Restaurant Assn.'s claim that the public health department needed to provide proof for the ban to go forward.

Larry Aaronson, a Santa Monica resident who stopped to talk to the protesters, said he thought if a lockdown had happened sooner, the county would be in better shape now.

His local business, Eco Coastal Cleaners, has suffered tremendously amid the pandemic, but he said he trusted that public health officials were doing the right thing.

"If it was shut down properly, if people were wearing masks from the very beginning, my business would be better by now," he said.

The protest outside Kuehl's home follows similar backlash against government officials as they work to stem the spread of the virus, which continues to rage unabated in the state.

The measures, which many health experts say are needed to avoid overwhelming hospitals as COVID-19 hit unprecedented levels, have caused economic misery for some businesses.

Added to that is the backlash over the behavior of some politicians, most notably Gov. Gavin Newsom and his now infamous dinner at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa County. Newsom has since expressed regret for attending a birthday party for his political advisor, Jason Kinney, at the tony restaurant in Yountville on Nov. 6.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo took to social media on Tuesday to apologize for defying health orders by attending a Thanksgiving gathering with people from five households.

"I understand my obligation as a public official to provide exemplary compliance with public health orders, & not to ignore them. I commit to do better," he said in his Twitter mea culpa.

The state currently permits only three households to gather together outdoors, and Liccardo himself urged people not to attend large gatherings in a tweet the day before Thanksgiving.

Hours after that statement, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Mayor London Breed attended a dinner at the French Laundry a day after Newsom. Her spokesman described it as a “small family birthday dinner,” but declined to give further details.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.