An unelected public health official sent shock waves through Los Angeles this week when she announced that she would continue her Department of Public Health stay-at-home orders through the summer. The announcement went viral across millions of Angeleno cellphones. I received the link about 10 times. Even friends who had been supportive of the lockdown were now expressing surprise and concern. Soon thereafter, the Hollywood Bowl announced that it was canceling its outdoor concert series for the first time in 93 years.
The announcement came at the same time the county was finally opening its beaches, the last county in the state to do so. But, sitting or lying on a Los Angeles County beach, even by yourself, is prohibited. You are required to wear a mask while on the beach (be careful about awkward tan lines), but the order makes clear you are permitted to remove it before going in the water (probably wise). Still prohibited is biking on the beach paths, with or without a mask (I guess because bikes cross paths with each other for a split second), and volleyball, even though traditionally played on the beach with just two on a team. The county also finally opened its parks and hiking trails, which had been closed for almost two months, despite the fact that New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, never closed its parks.
The announcement comes a week after the Department announced its first "reopening" of the county for business. Local news channels feigned excitement: "Los Angeles reopens, news at 11!" But this "Phase I" reopening only applied to florists, toy, book, clothing, music and sporting goods stores, and only for curbside pickup. So much for a "reopening." I had a sense our leaders were out of touch, but I did not realize the extent. We now buy our books on something called the "internet" through a "website" called "Amazon," or simply download them to a tablet. Music stores went out of business long ago due to Amazon and something called "streaming." We usually buy our toys and sporting goods on Amazon also. Now, opening clothing stores would be nice since we like to browse the latest styles and try them on for size and fit before buying. But the state and county are not permitting us to go into the store. Rather, we must call ahead to order the item, and then pick it up "curbside." That is not helpful. That is what the internet is for.
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Even to open up for the limited purpose of curbside pickup, the Department of Public Health issued a "Reopening Protocol" which must be met in order to reopen. This includes over 30 itemized requirements, under headings such as, "Workplace Policies and Practices to Protect Employee Health," "Measures to Ensure Social Distancing," "Measures for Infection Control," "Measures that Communicate to the Public," and "Measures that Ensure Equitable Access to Critical Services." In the meantime, left shuttered by these orders are retail establishments we truly would like to visit, such as restaurants, bars, hair and nail salons, car washes and health clubs.
The announcement also came soon after L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would put to use shuttered hotels to house the homeless in 2,400 hotel rooms, and the Troubadour, L.A.'s most iconic nightclub, announced it likely will never reopen. The clubs of the Sunset Strip are shuttered with no opening date in sight. Garcetti is likely now eyeing the them for additional homeless shelters.
So, who is this unelected county health official? Her name is Dr. Barbara Ferrer. According to her biography, she is a philanthropic strategist, educational leader and community advocate. She works "to improve population outcomes through efforts that build health and education equity." She served as the chief strategy officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, focusing on things like "Family Economic Security," "Racial Equity" and "Community Engagement." She also worked as the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission where she worked to "address inequities in health outcomes" and secured federal, state and local funding for "community-based programs." Ferrer has a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from Brandeis University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. At the L.A. County Department of Public Health she proudly states she is "committed to reducing health disparities."
These are excellent credentials to teach at a liberal university, but not so good to be given the keys to the largest county by GDP ($710 billion) in the United States. Yet, she in fact holds those keys, having been the one to issue the stay at home order and who alone holds the power to revoke it, or not. Yes, we are truly now living in La La Land.