Is It Safe Out There?

Published Jul 31, 2020

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This has been a key question since the pandemic blew into Los Angeles. You'd be forgiven for not being sure how to answer it. 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.

Over the past few weeks there's been a frightening increase in hospitalizations and fatalities, the testing positivity rate has spiked, the number of cases is surging and breaking records, and community spread is up.

In mid-July, an estimated one in every 230 people in L.A. County was infected and contagious -- with many actively infecting others.

County health officials have likened the current situation to "a runaway train," and there's (again) concern that L.A.'s hospitals and ICU beds could soon fill up. On a state level, all Californians are now required to wear face masks in public.

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

Getting a straight answer about how to safely exist in this new world has not been easy. There have been mixed signals that vacillate between enjoy-L.A.-at-your-own-risk and "hunker down."

This is on top of the leftover chaos from the initial round of reopenings. When the decision was made to lift restrictions, the messaging more or less stayed the same. People were told they should continue staying at home as much as possible.

But there's an inherent disconnect there.

Why would things be reopening if we're not supposed to go? That clash was never adequately resolved or clarified, and 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, 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.

And while there may be rules -- lots of them -- human error is real.

Perhaps most unsettling is that 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 decision-making steps you can use in 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 short nap inside a giant, exasperated facepalm.

When asked about the methods for judging possible dangers:

BUT, we do have a color wheel now.

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

We've been at level "ORANGE" since its debut, meaning the risk of infection is high, and it's recommended people stay home except for essential needs and essential work. On July 13 we escalated to "the border of going RED."

Reopening a metropolis during a rising pandemic has proven to be a tricky thing. But reopening a metropolis 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 L.A. protests (like tear gas, not distancing protesters in custody, corralling arrests, crowded buses) created conditions that could increase that spread.

The current surge in infections, however, was traced by L.A. health officials back to parties and gatherings over Memorial Day weekend where people were gathering with friends and family that they did not 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, and the entire KPCC/LAist newsroom.


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