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White House concerned with coronavirus spread in LA area, asks CDC to investigate

Tribune News Service logoTribune News Service 5/22/2020 By Alex Wigglesworth, Luke Money, Noah Bierman and Hannah Fry, Los Angeles Times
a man standing in front of a fence: People walk, jog and bike past Evergreen Cemetery as local stay at home orders are increasingly relaxed months into the COVID-19 pandemic. © Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS People walk, jog and bike past Evergreen Cemetery as local stay at home orders are increasingly relaxed months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

LOS ANGELES — While some parts of the country are seeing major progress in fighting the coronavirus, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, on Friday singled out Los Angeles as one of three regions where persistent spread remains a significant concern.

Speaking with reporters at the White House, Birx gave a mostly upbeat assessment of the nation’s progress but said the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which includes Orange County, is continuing to see problems, along with Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

“Even though Washington has remained closed, L.A. has remained closed, Chicago has remained closed, we still see these ongoing cases,” she said.

Brix asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with those areas “to really understand where are these new cases coming from, and what do we need to do to prevent them in the future.”

Los Angeles County is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in California, accounting for about 56% of the state’s total deaths and almost half of nearly 90,000 confirmed infections. The county’s death toll rose Thursday to 2,021, with more than 42,000 confirmed cases.

“This is a very sad milestone for us,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday after the deaths exceeded 2,000.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she hoped officials could ease stay-at-home restrictions soon but urged caution.

“I wish that we could speed things up,” she said. “The virus is still out there waiting for us to let our guard down.”

Despite the average daily death toll, which has remained at a stubborn plateau for weeks, there were new signs that even Los Angeles is beginning to turn the corner.

The coronavirus transmission rate in the nation’s most populous county is now in its best position since the magnitude of the outbreak became clear in March.

Still, officials remain concerned that warm temperatures and quarantine fatigue could drive people from their homes over the Memorial Day weekend, resulting in crowding at parks and beaches that could threaten to undo some of the progress the state has made.

In San Francisco, the parks department painted 10-foot circles on the grass of four city parks ahead of the holiday weekend to remind visitors to follow social distancing rules.

It’s part of a pilot program based on a similar effort at Domino Park in Brooklyn, said Tamara Barak Aparton, spokeswoman for San Francisco Recreation and Parks.

“It’s going to be warm this weekend and we knew people would be out, so we thought it would be a good time to get feedback on whether this helps,” Aparton said. If successful, the circles could be expanded to more locations, she said.

In Orange County, several coastal cities expanded their beach hours and planned to open more parking lots connected to the shoreline ahead of the holiday.

Seal Beach, which initially allowed public access only Mondays through Thursdays from sunrise to sunset, is now welcoming beachgoers from 4:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, officials said earlier this week. Some beach parking lots also reopened. Beaches are open for active use only.

A few miles south, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach also are allowing beach access on weekends, ahead of the Memorial Day holiday. Newport is now open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., while Huntington Beach opens an hour earlier.

Laguna Beach, however, is maintaining stricter hours on Saturdays and Sundays, with its coastline closing at noon each day.

While Los Angeles County beaches also have reopened for active use, only some parking lots are open.

In addition to the reduced transmission rate, L.A. County has seen other encouraging indicators, including a 12% decrease in its latest seven-day average of deaths per day and a 15% decrease in its most recent three-day average for hospitalizations per day, Ferrer said Thursday.

“The progress we’ve made in slowing the spread, the reduction in the average daily deaths and hospitalizations and retaining capacity in our health care system — this lets us know that the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices made by all of you are working,” she said. “As a community, we’ve done this together, and this progress is a direct reflection of what all of you in your day-to-day lives have been able to accomplish.”

Still, she said, officials will continue to keep a close eye on those metrics to ensure they don’t creep up as more people are out in the public due to businesses and recreation areas reopening.

“Through our recovery journey, as we’re all out of our homes more, it may become more difficult to slow the spread, but it is far from impossible,” she said.

Though experts say it’s still too soon for L.A. County to move into a more aggressive phase of recovery, much of California has progressed to a point where officials feel it’s safe to lift more of the state’s stay-at-home order and allow more businesses to reopen.

The number of new coronavirus cases across the state declined from the previous week, and hospitalizations have dropped more than 15% from a peak six weeks ago, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Most counties have received approval to progress more quickly through Phase 2 of the state’s reopening road map — meaning they can open restaurant dining rooms and more retail businesses for in-store shopping.

The list of counties that can ramp up their reopening efforts now includes San Diego — the state’s second-most populous — Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

That comes as officials revealed that California’s unemployment rate nearly tripled from mid-March to mid-April, with the state losing an unprecedented 2.3 million payroll jobs across all sectors of its economy as a result of the pandemic.

April’s jobless rate skyrocketed to 15.5%, up from 5.5% a month before, sweeping past the Great Recession’s peak of 12.3% a decade ago, state officials reported Friday.

The Golden State’s jobless rate is higher than the nationwide rate of 14.7%, reflecting California’s reliance on tourism, hospitality and entertainment businesses.

Still, some local officials are urging tourists to stay away — at least for now. Multiple counties have expressed concern about people visiting and possibly bringing with them the coronavirus, especially during the Memorial Day weekend.

Dr. Penny Borenstein, San Luis Obispo County’s health officer, asked tourists to not visit as the county reopened many shops and restaurants this week. While officials have performed “spot checks” with hotels to deter tourism, Borenstein said the county would cite visitors only in the case of “egregious violations.”

Remote Alpine County urged tourists to stay away when the virus began to spread through California in March.

Dr. Richard Johnson, the Alpine County public health officer, said last month there’s no medical care to treat visitors who fall ill with COVID-19.

“There’s no way we would even have ground or air resources to get them out,” Johnson said. “It’s a dangerous assumption that you can come and look at us as a safe haven. It is an unsafe haven.”

Communities in the Lake Tahoe region, which heavily depend on tourism as well, have issued reminders before the holiday weekend warning that leisure travel is not permitted.

On its website, the city of South Lake Tahoe said that while second homeowners are now welcome, other visitors are still not. Lodging will not be available to short-term renters.

“We would love nothing more than to welcome everyone to Tahoe right now, but that’s not the safest way to bring people back to South Lake,” City Manager Joe Irvin said in a statement. “We need to be responsible and make sure we are doing our part to keep our neighbors safe and Tahoe safe while adhering to the governor’s stay at home orders.”


(Bierman reported from Washington. Times staff writer Margot Roosevelt contributed to this report.)


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