Los Angeles County’s public health director urged residents to adhere to safety guidelines Wednesday, warning of a possible spike in coronavirus infections as the county allows more spaces shuttered to curb the spread of the virus to reopen within the county.
“There is a lot at stake as we reopen,” Barbara Ferrer said at a news conference. “More people being around one another can result in more transmission of COVID-19— just more cases and likely more hospitalizations and deaths. This is why it couldn’t be more important for us to take care of each other when we’re out of our homes.”
The L.A. County Department of Public Health amended its health officer order Tuesday to allow in-store shopping and permit places of worship to reopen, along with some pools, flea markets and drive-in movie theaters — all with strict restrictions.
Retailers, including ones at malls, can open at 50% capacity, officials said.
Still closed are gyms, bars and nightclubs, theaters, stadiums, theme parks, piers, beauty parlors and barbershops, playgrounds, museums and community centers.
And though the county gave the green light for more areas to reopen, businesses can still choose to remain closed amid the pandemic, and houses of worship are still advised to host virtual services so that those most at-risk of serious illness can be included.
“We are reopening, but I urge businesses and institutions to take their time to make sure that when they are open again, they’re doing it in a safer manner as possible,” Ferrer said.
As more spaces reopen, the three “cardinal rules” are for everyone to wear face coverings, stay at least 6 feet away from others and to isolate at home when sick or positive for the coronavirus, Ferrer said.
Ferrer outlined a grim scenario: “If there are 2 million more people going to offices, stores and houses of worship now, and even 2% are infected with COVID-19, we would have 40,000 people moving about that are capable of spreading this virus,” she said. “And if each infected person transmits to even just one other person, there could be 80,000 people infected over a couple of weeks.”
That could result in another 4,000 needing hospitalization for the respiratory illness, the health director said.
“Without taking a lot of care to make sure infected people do not infect others, we could easily get to a place where the hospitals are overwhelmed,” Ferrer said.
Reopening the additional spaces aligns the county’s orders with the state’s, which after mounting pressure allowed churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship to hold religious services Monday.
Though faith-based institutions can resume services, they must operate at less than 25% capacity, or with a maximum of 100 congregants, whichever is lower, county officials said. The state released its guidance for places of worship to maintain cleaning and physical distancing protocols.
The state also allowed hair salons and barbershops to reopen for certain services and with masks required, but only in counties that have provided attestations that they meet criteria for a faster reopening — and received the green light from the state.
L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger announced Tuesday the county will be applying for a variance from the state, saying the county “has achieved necessary readiness criteria.” Ferrer said the county will submit the application later Wednesday.
Asked about whether the county is moving too quickly with reopening more spaces, Ferrer said, “I feel confident that we’re moving forward in a manner that’s very respectful of the resources we have here.”
Surrounding Orange, Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties have all received the go-ahead to reopen faster, clearing them to allow their restaurants to resume in-person dining and open retail and schools, with modification.
But even as officials move forward with reopening more spaces, densely-populated L.A. County remains the epicenter of the pandemic in California.
With 48,700 known coronavirus infections and 2,195 deaths, L.A. County continues to account for about half the state’s virus cases and deaths — though it’s home to only about a quarter of California’s population.
Ferrer said that just last week, the county wasn’t eligible to apply for the faster reopening from the state. But that changed this week as the county’s testing and contact tracing rates have increased and the positivity rate for the coronavirus went down.
She stressed that the county has adopted a phased approach to reopening, and more spaces will gradually open up as the county approaches the July 4 date that was previously announced as a goal for reopening.
In announcing the looser state restrictions Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that the state isn’t out of the woods yet and urged residents to remain steadfast in adhering to public health guidelines.
“We’re not even out of the first wave of this pandemic,” he said. “People are talking about the second wave. That’s many, many months off. The reality is this pandemic has just begun it hasn’t ended.”