County leaders vote to reopen churches, retail stores immediately

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted today to immediately reopen more businesses—such as churches and retail stores—with required physical distancing and other health mandates.

As of Tuesday, Los Angeles was one of just 11 of California’s 58 counties not to have received a “regional variance” from the state. The variances allow counties that meet certain coronavirus health criteria to move deeper into the state’s four-stage “roadmap” that guides the reopening of different business sectors.

The county—and most of the state—is in Stage 2 of that roadmap, although the state is slowly moving into Stage 3, with Gov. Gavin Newsom today authorizing the reopening of barbershops and hair salons and earlier clearing the way for churches and other houses of worship to restart in-person services.

After hearing from the public and going into a closed-door session to talk to county counsel and discuss the matter further, the Board of Supervisors announced a vote to apply on Wednesday for a variance.

The board also announced that it would align the county’s health officer order with the state’s orders to ensure consistency.

Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn had co-authored a motion recommending that a variance for the whole county be sought immediately after certain state criteria have been met. However, the motion seemed to indicate that the move would take some time, as it also proposed asking the county’s health officer to work with state officials to obtain variances that would allow select cities to relax health regulations earlier than the county as a whole.

During the board’s closed-session meeting, however, the motion was amended, and the board voted to apply for the variance right away.

“Los Angeles County has dedicated critical resources to meet the benchmark criteria to support our efforts to reopen, including ensuring adequate hospital capacity, increasing access and availability of testing and contact tracing, and implementing protections for vulnerable populations,” Barger said in a statement following the meeting. “Regional data shows we have flattened the curve, indicating our readiness to move forward in phased recovery. This will put Los Angeles County on a level playing field with surrounding counties, which have already been granted variances.”

Meanwhile, Barger said in-person shopping at retail establishments—as opposed to only curbside pickup—and in-person services at churches and other houses of worship will resume immediately in the county, with required physical distancing and other health mandates. But the county will await state approval of the variance before allowing in-restaurant dining and personal care businesses like salons and barbershops to reopen.

Under the revised county health order, flea markets, swap meets and drive-in movie theaters may also resume operations. Community pools in apartment complexes or shared as part of a homeowners association are also free to reopen.

Public protests will be permitted with a maximum of 100 attendees in an area large enough to accommodate 4 times the number of people present.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti quickly followed suit Tuesday evening, announcing the resumption of in-store retail shopping in the city, effective Wednesday.

Long Beach has not said if it will follow suit. Mayor Robert Garcia said more details would come Wednesday.

The county board’s vote came after officials representing municipalities from the South Bay to the Ventura County border urged supervisors to allow retail businesses in certain cities to reopen faster, arguing that they face a lower risk than the county as a whole.

Los Angeles County has been held back from seeking a variance thanks to its position as a coronavirus hot spot, being home to roughly half of all the state’s cases and deaths from COVID-19.

Barger supported the idea of letting cities open more quickly, and tried to persuade her colleagues to allow cities to tailor reopenings to specific circumstances in each jurisdiction.

“This virus has impacted each of our communities differently,” Barger said. “Many of the communities have matched the state’s Department of Public Health thresholds.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl disagreed, saying that it would “fracture” the county and create racial inequities, since cities with large minority populations likely wouldn’t be able to open as fast as other cities.

“(It) creates an ungovernable patchwork quilt,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said earlier Tuesday that the state was open to the idea of allowing some parts of Los Angeles County to reopen faster than others. He noted “geographic disparities and the spread of the virus being disparate among different regions within” Los Angeles County. He also told reporters, “We look forward to working with (L.A. County officials) more substantively and specifically about areas that they would recommend.”

Although the board’s vote to seek a countywide variance seemed to render the city-by-city discussion temporarily moot, it could still return as an issue. Long Beach has already asked the state to allow it to apply for a variance on its own. There is no guarantee the state will grant the county’s variance, or how quickly that decision will be made. It also remained unclear if the county intends to apply the reopening rules uniformly across all 88 cities and the unincorporated areas.

Barger argued during the meeting that the economic shutdown was disproportionately hurting minority communities and low-wage workers, many of whom work in cities that could meet state criteria.

“Every county around us has reopened and is moving in a direction that, quite frankly, if we do not begin listen to our constituency and listen to what is going on in this county, we are going to have more jobs lost,” Barger said.

Many residents, business owners and officials spoke out on behalf of Westlake Village, which borders Ventura County. Ventura County was granted a variance May 20 allowing retail businesses to reopen.

Westlake Village Councilman Ned Davis pointed to the lopsided consequences for retailers.

“Our city is faced with businesses on one side of the street located in Ventura County reopening while similar businesses on the opposite side of the street located in Los Angeles County must remain closed. The city of Westlake Village meets all the necessary metrics to qualify for the variance,” Davis told the board.

In her debate with Barger, Kuehl pointed out that the same disparities would crop up if cities bordering Los Angeles were granted variances.

“Everybody’s on the border of something,” Kuehl said.

Rik Bright of Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village told the board that “the statistics and the data show that our area is safe.”

Bright and others assured the supervisors that they would abide by all city, county and state safety guidelines, with one business owner saying,”We are prepared to open going above and beyond the safety requirements.”

Westlake Village has a total of 6 confirmed cases, no deaths and no recent cases, according to the speakers and public health records.

Others pointed out that the region has already suffered economically as a result of the 2018 Woolsey Fire.

El Segundo Mayor Drew Boyles also asked that his city be allowed to open under accelerated state guidelines—eliminating curbside-only restrictions for retailers—even as the county as whole is under Stage 2.

“We should be allowed to forge ahead,” Boyles told the board on the teleconference, promising that shoppers could be kept safe.

El Segundo had 32 total positive coronavirus cases, only two of which are active, according to Boyles. The city’s population totals roughly 16,610, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.

Torrance Mayor Patrick Furey also asked for the freedom to move faster than Los Angeles and other cities countywide, saying local officials are better positioned than Sacramento to make the best decisions for local residents.

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