As more retail businesses open their doors to customers, Los Angeles County is expected to officially seek state approval Wednesday to move deeper into California’s roadmap for restarting the economy, a move that could allow the opening of dine-in restaurants and hair salons.
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 California’s four-stage “roadmap” that guides the reopening of various 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 on Tuesday authorizing the reopening of barbershops and hair salons in counties that have received variances. Newsom on Monday cleared the way for churches and other houses of worship to restart in-person services, with restrictions on attendance and activities.
After hearing from the public Tuesday morning and discussing the matter in closed session, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors announced it will apply Wednesday for a state variance.
Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn had initially co-authored a motion recommending that a variance for the whole county be sought as soon as the county met criteria set by the state, such as available hospital space, coronavirus testing capacity and ability to trace the contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19.
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.”
Also Tuesday, the county announced a further loosening of its Safer At Home restrictions, allowing more business activity in the county and bringing the health order more in line with the state’s.
Most notably, the revised health order allows in-person shopping at retail establishments, as opposed to only curbside pickup, but shops are limited to 50% of capacity. It also allows the resumption of in-person services at churches and other houses of worship although such services will be restricted to 25% of building capacity, or 100 people, whichever is lower.
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 four times the number of people present.
The county order continues to require that people who interact with other members of the public in any setting wear cloth face coverings and practice social distancing.
In light of the county’s announcement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Tuesday night that the city’s retail establishments will also be permitted to reopen to customers. But he said business owners should not feel obligated to reopen right away if they are uncomfortable doing so.
“I’m committed to getting these businesses up and running safely, and just because you can open doesn’t mean you have to open,” the mayor said.
It was not immediately clear how long it would take for the state to review the county’s request for a variance. If approved, the county would be cleared to open more sectors of the economy, most notably dine-in service at restaurants and hair salons — all with limited capacity.
During Tuesday’s meeting, representatives of various cities asked the Board of Supervisors for permission to allow such businesses to reopen ahead of the county as a whole, arguing the virus has had less of an impact in select communities.
Barger supported the idea 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.”
But Supervisor Sheila Kuehl disagreed, saying 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 others.
“(It) creates an ungovernable patchwork quilt,” she said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said earlier Tuesday 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.
Although the board’s vote to seek a countywide variance could render the city-by-city discussion moot, it could still return as an issue if the state rejects the county’s application.
Many residents, business owners and officials spoke during Tuesday’s meeting on behalf of Westlake Village, which borders Ventura County. Ventura County was granted a variance May 20 allowing retail businesses to reopen.
“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,” Westlake Village Councilman Ned Davis told the board.
Westlake Village has a total of six confirmed cases, no deaths and no recent cases, according to the speakers and public health records.
El Segundo Mayor Drew Boyles also asked that his city be allowed to open under accelerated state guidelines.
“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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