Public health concerns have taken a backseat in conversations about reopening our economy and returning to what we fondly remember as “normal life”. Memorial Day historically signals the unofficial start of summer and because COVID-19 cases were on the decline, many hoped it would also mark the beginning of a return to normalcy. Even before the Governor and Mayor began lifting restrictions, some residents dismissed the stay at home orders. On Memorial Day weekend, people flocked to beaches and parks in droves, hosted gatherings with more than ten people in attendance, and did so without wearing protective face masks.
The rescinding of statewide stay at home orders has more establishments open for business and more Angelenos seeking relief outdoors. Additionally, residents are processing the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police. Between people outside seeking solace and others expressing outrage, it is unclear how these events will influence the spread of COVID-19.
“The rush to reopen the economy is complicated. COVID-19 has ravaged so many small businesses in South LA and due to the lack of access to federal support, many won’t survive, said Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson. “The historic economic hardship that has haunted our communities has only intensified with a global health and economic crisis. However, we know that as the curve flattens in white communities, it continues to spike in ours. On Memorial Day weekend, residents sought outdoor solace for recreation, this weekend we saw people also out in numbers demanding justice for the senseless murder of George Floyd. We know that these actions may cause a spike in COVID-19 cases and must be prepared to respond with the resources necessary.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it takes two to three weeks from the time of exposure to test whether one has contracted COVID-19. It’s prudent to question the safety of reopening more businesses and public spaces before we fully understand the impact of these prior events. With COVID-19 disproportionately impacting communities of color, it is clear that South LA cannot afford to see a rise in positive cases.
Stay at home restrictions have slowly but surely been relaxed in Los Angeles County, with beaches, bike paths and parking lots reopening and stores at indoor malls operating now with curbside service, dining at restaurants is limited. According to Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, “The curve has not flattened nearly enough for communities that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, such as South LA, to compromise their health and safety during this time. We cannot afford to lax restrictions like other affluent communities.”
South Los Angeles continues to be the center of COVID-19 cases, as many residents do not have the luxury of staying safe at home or access to sufficient healthcare. Race Counts reported that by the second week of April, the growth of cases in poorer communities accelerated faster than in wealthier areas, and the gap continues to grow.
Councilmember Harris-Dawson is investing resources to expand COVID-19 testing in South LA communities. The council district 8 office is contracting Shared Harvest, a Los Angeles-based social enterprise to bring culturally sensitive COVID-19 antibody testing to South LA. The testing locations will be safe spaces that account for the distrust many residents have towards public institutions. Registration is recommended, not required and there will be no police at the testing locations to remove barriers that dissuade Black and Brown residents from accessing testing.
Community based organizations are also working to keep public health at the forefront of this conversation. On Saturday, May 30, the Community Coalition hosted a zoom forum to reframe the conversation around reopening Los Angeles as a Public Health conversation. The forum engaged South Los Angeles residents with a panel of health and data experts from Race Counts, LA County Department of Public Health, the Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, and UMMA clinics. According to Dr. Ferrer from the LA County Department of Public Health, “Among black and latinx residents, the death rate is 2 times higher than it is among white residents.” She continued to say that “I think some of the disproportionality comes from exposure in the workplace.” Not only are communities like South LA still suffering from this pandemic, but these communities are also suffering at the expense of carrying out the essential work necessary for other communities to sustain themselves during this time.
Nationally, There has been a major push from the White House, Congress and local leaders to reopen the economy despite clear warnings from public health officials. These voices have successfully shifted the conversation away from public health and centered on the economy, ignoring the dire consequences these decisions will have for many residents.
Locally, LA County has announced the reopening of restaurants, barbershops, and salons. But now lies the question – who’s backs will this economic push be carried on? Just one glimpse at history can answer that question. South LA cannot afford to prioritize an economy that excludes and exploits many residents during a public health crisis that is disproportionately killing Black and Brown people.