Is It Safe Out There?

Updated Nov 16, 2020 |
Published Jul 29, 2020

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"Is it safe out there?" has been a key question since the pandemic blew into Los Angeles. You'd be forgiven for not knowing how to respond -- it's been extremely confusing.

So, here's the simplified answer: No.

There's a deadly virus running amok. COVID-19 is out of control in L.A. County. It is not safe.

In early November, L.A. County recorded the highest number of new cases since early July. By mid-November:

The coronavirus case rate for L.A. County doubled in a week.

A state travel advisory was issued for non-essential trips/Californians urged to stay home or in region.

The most restrictive reopening tier was issued for all of Southern California.

A statewide curfew was under consideration.

- HOW WE GOT HERE -

To review: Shutdowns started in March.

Reopenings ballooned in May.

And in July there was a frightening increase in hospitalizations and fatalities.

The testing positivity rate at the time had spiked, the number of cases began to surge and break records, and community spread went up with an estimated one in every 230 people in the county infected and contagious -- with many actively infecting others.

County health officials at the time likened the situation to "a runaway train," and there was (again) concern that L.A.'s hospitals and ICU beds could fill up.

On a state level, all Californians were required to wear face masks in public.

Meanwhile, experts say the overall daily case numbers we see are an undercount -- in part because of equity issues with testing and lab backlogs.

The United States surpassed 200,000 COVID-19 deaths on September 22, and some experts thought at the time that the count could nearly double by the end of the year.

- AIRBORNE -

Then came the update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on October 5 about how the virus spreads:

COVID-19 can sometimes be spread "by airborne transmission."

That means that in certain conditions, it is possible for the virus to:

Spread more than 6 feet via particles and droplets
Linger in the air for minutes to hours
Infect even after an infectious person has left a space

According to the CDC, person-to-person close contact transmission is still the most common way COVID-19 is spread. Transmission by touching contaminated surfaces is also possible, but not thought to be as common.

Getting a straight answer about how to safely exist in this new world has not been easy.

- MIXED SIGNALS & METRICS -

The CDC's airborne acknowledgement came more than eight months after we published our first coronavirus guide, and on the day the president of the United States was hospitalized with COVID-19.

On the West Coast, there have been mixed signals that vacillated between enjoy-L.A.-at-your-own-risk and "hunker down."

There's also still leftover chaos from the first round of reopenings. When restrictions were initially lifted the messaging more or less stayed the same. People were told they should continue staying at home as much as possible.

But the inherent disconnect -- ie: why are things reopening if we're not supposed to go there? -- was never adequately resolved or clarified. It continues to create some level of cognitive dissonance as sectors reopen and re-close (and people respond with varying levels of compliance).

What does this mean in practical terms? How can people evaluate possible health hazards when engaging with the reopened parts of Los Angeles?

That's a great question!

Spoiler: You sort of can't in a robust way?

Data helps.

Georgia Tech researchers created a Risk Assessment Planning Tool.

And you can choose outside activities over inside activities (provided you maintain distance and wear a mask).

But, just because something is open doesn't mean it's free of risk. There are plenty of new rules, but human error is real.

Plus, there's a lot we still don't know about this virus, about transmission, and about what it does to infected people and survivors.

If you're looking to officials to spell out actionable steps for decision-making in your daily life, prepare for inconsistencies.

The narrative is fluid. The situation is fluid. And, after all the back-and-forth, you may want to take a very long nap inside an exasperated facepalm.

For example, during the inital rounds of reopening, here's what was said when asked about how people should judge possible dangers :

- A RAINBOW OF THREATS -

BUT, we do have a color chart now. Two of them.

Los Angeles has a rainbow wheel of threats that functions as a shorthand system for gauging safety on any given day.

And the state has a four-tier, color-coded reopening blueprint where you can enter your zip code and check the reopening status for different types of businesses.

According to L.A.'s rainbow we're at level "ORANGE," meaning the risk of infection is high, and it's recommended people stay home except for essential needs and essential work.

According to the state, we are PURPLE. That means the pandemic is "Widespread," based on case rates and positivity rates. PURPLE is the top tier. There is no GREEN. "We don't believe that there is a green light, which says go back to the way things were," is new Newsom messaging as of August 28.

- CONFLUENCE OF CRISES -

Reopening Los Angeles during a rising pandemic is a tricky thing. But reopening Los Angeles during a rising pandemic when the nation is also -- as civil rights lawyer Connie Rice put it -- "fighting the last battles of the American Civil War," is another thing entirely.

And that's where we are right now.

As a society, we are standing inside a Venn diagram of pandemic and brutality, staring down centuries of racial inequity and a historic contagion with a death toll that screams "racism is a public health issue."

The coronavirus has taken a disproportionate toll on Black and Latino Angelenos, and the aggressive law enforcement tactics seen at some L.A. protests -- like tear gas, not distancing protesters in custody, corralling arrests, crowded buses-- can create conditions that can increase spread.

The surges in cases, however, were traced in July to parties and gatherings over Memorial Day weekend. The surging cases in November were blamed on "COVID fatigue," a false sense of security, and people not following public health guidelines about spending time with family and friends they don't live with.

For now, the ground keeps moving, the rules keep shifting, and it's not entirely clear what comes next.

This special edition of our How To L.A. handbook series was created with this in mind, for this moment in time, with guides to help Angelenos navigate the day-to-day, as it changes, seemingly, minute-by-minute.

- WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW? ASK US QUESTIONS -

Screaming into the abyss has its merits, but the abyss doesn't typically respond with useful feedback. Try us instead.

Is there something you want to understand better? We've answered thousands of questions since the world turned upside down. Yours could be next.


With contributions from Ryan Fonseca, Jackie Fortier, Brian Frank, Mike Roe, Jessica Ogilvie, Gina Pollack, Elly Yu, Elina Shatkin, and the entire KPCC/LAist newsroom.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on July 29, 2020.


Image Credit (top): Illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist | Image by Morning Brew/Unsplash

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