LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to seek state approval to authorize the reopening of more businesses — such as dine-in restaurants and hair salons — though the county’s health officer may add additional restrictions on such operations.
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 Tuesday 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 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.”
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.
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 certain 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. There is no guarantee the state will grant the 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 to listen to our constituency and listen to what is going on in this county, we are going to have more jobs lost,” Barger said.