Is It Safe Out There?

Published Sep 22, 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.

Shutdowns started in March. Reopenings ballooned in May. And by July there was a frightening increase in hospitalizations and fatalities, the testing positivity rate spiked, the number of cases began to surge and break records, and community spread went 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 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.

On September 22, the United States surpassed 200,000 COVID-19 deaths. Some experts think that count could nearly double by the end of 2020, NPR reported.

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 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. On July 13 we escalated to "the border of going RED."

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.

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

The July surge in infections, however, was traced by L.A. health officials back to parties and gatherings over Memorial Day weekend where people were spending time 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.


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