Los Angeles County surpassed public health officials’ benchmarks for triggering tougher anti-coronavirus business restrictions, as 2,718 new infections were reported Sunday, Nov. 22. The new rules, which will begin Wednesday at 10 p.m., will restrict dining at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars to takeout, drive-thru or delivery service.
Sunday’s statistics pushed the county’s five-day average caseload of infections to 4,097, with a staggering 20,487 new cases reported since Wednesday.
In-person dining will not be allowed, at minimum, for the next 3 weeks, officials said. Wineries and breweries can continue their retail operations, however, to masked, socially distanced clientele.
Hospitalizations, too, are posting dramatic increases, up to 1,401 on Sunday — the highest since August — representing a major increase from a month ago when daily hospitalizations were around 730 and falling. The number of hospitalized patients increased by about 35% over the past seven days.
Under thresholds released in response to the relentless surge in cases, health officials last week said restaurants, wineries and breweries would be closed for in-person dining if the county reached a five-day average of 4,000 or more cases, or if hospitalizations topped 1,750.
If the climb continues, expect even tougher restrictions: If the county’s five-day daily case average exceeds 4,500, or if hospitalizations top 2,000, the county will issue a strict “Safer At Home” order — much like the one imposed at the onset of the pandemic. The order would allow only essential workers to leave home, or people who are accessing essential services.
The county also reported nine additional deaths on Sunday. More than 364,520 people have tested positive for COVID-19 across all areas of L.A. County, with a total of 7,438 deaths.
“As we modify our Thanksgiving holiday celebrations, we are reminded of the many families who will miss their loved ones who have passed away from COVID-19. We send wishes for healing and peace,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of public health. “The persistent high number of cases requires additional safety measures that limit mixing in settings where people are not wearing masks. We hope individuals continue to support restaurants, breweries and wineries by ordering for take-out or delivery. We also fervently hope every L.A. County resident supports all our businesses by following the public health directives that we know work to slow spread. Unfortunately, if our cases and hospitalizations continue to increase, we will need to issue further restrictions to protect our healthcare system and prevent more deaths.”
Testing results are available for more than 3,542,000 people, officials said, with 10% of them testing positive.
County health officials reported 4,522 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, Nov. 21, just days after the county reported its worst single-day report since the pandemic began, with more than 5,000 infections posted on Thursday.
Sunday’s county update did not include new figures from Long Beach or Pasadena, which operate their own health departments. Pasadena’s 63 new cases raised its total since the pandemic began to 3,374; its death toll of 131 did not change. Long Beach did not update its dashboard Saturday; as of Friday, the city had reported 14,999 cases and 270 deaths.
LA County, like others in the state’s most restrictive “purple tier,” began a curfew Saturday night, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. through Dec. 21. People are allowed to shop for groceries, pick up food and walk their dogs.
All the new restrictions could prove to be setbacks for the region’s economy, and signals an inability to contain the spread after months of hope that L.A. County could maintain relatively lower case rates and hospitalizations, even as the middle of the country was seeing a major surge.
Containment, however, does not appear to be at hand.
The stunning rise prompted local business leaders to urge people to mask up and physical distance to avoid another shutdown.
“The curfew is challenging enough. But shutdown would be the final death of too many businesses. And with that goes vital jobs then food on the table,” said Tracy Hernandez, CEO and founding president of Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed). “All people need to wake up. Wear your masks, don’t gather in big groups, and keep 6 feet apart.”
But Hernandez, and many business owners across the region, were already bracing for this.
Just last week — propelled by the rising numbers — county officials had already reduced the number of customers allowed for many businesses. Restaurants, breweries and wineries had to cap occupancy to 50% of their outdoor seating. Indoor retail stores, personal care business and offices could have no more than 25% occupancy. Cardrooms and outdoor entertainment centers were limited to 50%. No more than 15 people should attend any outdoor social gathering, and such groups should be limited to three households.
Vic Chouchanian, co-owner of the popular San Fernando Brewing Co. with his brother, Joe, was not wholly surprised when he got Sunday’s news. Still, you could hear it hit hard, by the tone of disappointment in his voice.
“We knew it was coming,” he said, adding that he’d now have to lay off nine of his tap crew workers. “We’re just tired of the game. You’re open. You’re closed. If you’re going to close, shut it all down and let us reeopen ….” when it’s safe. “You just feel they are playing God with who gets to live and who gets to die.”
Nonethless, Chouchanian acknowledged the seriousness of the health issues. He said he’s doing all he can at his business to adhere to county health rules.
Like his business counterparts across the county, he’ll now look to out-the-door and online sales during the holidays to keep the business afloat. He said he also said he’ll look forward to Christmas for more orders.
“If that even happens this year,” he said.
Meanwhile, he was also bracing for even more drastic measures — which Ferrer foreshadowed.
“If we can’t get this back under control, that is unfortunately where we’re headed,” Ferrer said. “I still hope that we don’t have to go to Safer At Home and that we’re able in the next few days to start turning this around. But it really at this point means that things we did last week were part of a solution to turn things around.
“The other hope I have is that if that wasn’t possible and people didn’t make changes last week, that they’re making them today so that this is of short duration,” she said. “I know how exhausting that is for everyone, to continue to have to abide by rules and restrictions. I also know how exhausted our health care workers are, our essential workers are. And for all of their sakes, we need to slow down the spread and we need to do that rapidly.”
Dr. Angelique Campen, emergency room physician at Provident Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, said she and her colleagues were bracing for another jump in infections after Thanksgiving.
“Definitely,” she said Sunday night. “My concern is those asymptomatic (people) that feel gathering (outside their households) at Thanksgiving is safe,” said Campen, also a clinical professor of emergency medicine at UCLA.
Campen said what’s been concerning is the number of asymptomatic people who come into the ER for a non-Covid-19 ailment only to be tested and then find out they are positive.
Those numbers are rising at the hospital, she said. While she emphasized that there’s still plenty of room for patients who who have medical issues other than the virus, the hospital has gone from treating an average of 20 to 30 coronavirus patients in recent months to now 40 to 50 and rising.
“There’s no doubt about it that it’s spreading,” she said, expressing some better news that physicians have a stronger footing to treat the virus. But still, she said: “People don’t know they have it. They are asymptomatic and they’re spreading it.”
Ferrer 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 it now stands at 7.1%.
The county modified its health order Friday to impose some initial restrictions, most notably requiring restaurants, wineries, breweries and non-essential businesses to close between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Other restrictions that took effect Friday were:
- Indoor “nonessential” businesses such as retail stores, offices and personal care services will be limited to 25% occupancy;
- Outdoor service at restaurants, wineries and breweries will be limited to 50% of the maximum outdoor capacity;
- Outdoor cardrooms, miniature golf sites, go-kart tracks and batting cages will be limited to 50% of maximum outdoor capacity;
- Customers at personal-care businesses must make advance appointments, and no services that require customers to remove their face masks can be offered; and
- Outdoor gatherings must be limited 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.
Back on March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the first statewide stay-home order, and LA County and city quickly followed suit, setting off a roller-coaster year of easing and tightening of directives that has paralleled the extent to which people began gathering again and businesses began ramping up again.
Each time, particularly after holidays, the numbers have shown particular spikes in L.A. County, ultimately keeping the county in the state’s most restrictive tier for re-opening schools and other business and non-business sectors.
This time, officials began seeing rises in October, and have been warning about a double-whammy of flu season mixed with the potential for more holiday gatherings at the end of the year.
The bright spot ahead is a vaccine, though widespread delivery is likely months away.
Pfizer, the drug company, formally asked U.S. regulators Friday to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine, starting the clock on a process that could bring limited first shots as early as next month and eventually an end to the pandemic.
And U.S. health officials Saturday agreed to allow emergency use of a second antibody drug to help the immune system fight COVID-19, an experimental medicine that President Donald Trump was given when he was sickened last month.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, said the order is not a hard curfew, indicating that people can still go outside of their homes, but they just shouldn’t gather with others. He noted that he still plans to take his dog on its normal 11 p.m. walk.
He said there is no definitive cause for the state’s sudden surge in cases.
“There is no single culprit,” Ghaly said. “It’s a combination of factors. It’s certainly the colder weather, more mixing, which comes with more opening. … And of course greater travel. We’ve enjoyed some events over the last many weeks — in my home county of Los Angeles, the Dodgers, the Lakers. We had Halloween. We just exited Veterans Day. We’re looking forward to other future events and activities as we go into the winter.”
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 the county isn’t relying on law enforcement, but rather hoping residents will take the urgency to heart.
“We really appreciate that the best enforcement is voluntary compliance,” she said. “We’ve all done really well when we’ve set for ourselves a goal as a community and gotten behind it. I can’t think of anybody at this point who’s going to argue with the fact that we need to take some action to slow the spread, because this level of acceleration threatens our health care system.
“And that threatens care for every single person in this county —for people who have a heart attack, for people who need emergency surgery, for people who need scheduled surgery, for people who are victims of car accidents or trauma.”
On Thursday, the Los Angeles County Health Officer, Dr. Muntu Davis, lashed out at those who have questioned the danger of COVID-19, or even deemed it a hoax.
“The cases that we’re seeing, all of the science — this is across the world,” he said. “I don’t think anybody engineered a hoax to be worldwide in terms of a pandemic, let alone across the state, let alone across the region, let alone across the whole United States. These are real, these are scientific tests that are being done. The virus has been isolated from early on in the pandemic.”
“It’s unfortunate that someone thinks that this isn’t real,” he said.
He also bashed notions that the virus is less dangerous than the flu, noting that an estimated 3,133 people died during the 2019-2020 flu season in the county. COVID-19 has caused 7,363 deaths between March and November, despite only infecting about one-third as many residents as the flu.
Dr. Campen echoed Davis.
“I worry about the effects that the closures have on businesses and the economy, and on mental health,” she said. “It’s very disappointing we have to have thes restrictive measures to get people to pay attention…. I wish people would be more responsive and just heed those warnings.”