LOS ANGELES — The nation's most populous county is aiming for a July 4 reopening as public health and policy experts say the coronavirus pandemic has stabilized enough to begin economic recovery.
Los Angeles County officials set the deadline this week to reopen restaurants, malls and retail stores by Independence Day as stay-at-home orders continue to take a toll on nearly every industry, from retail to TV and film production.
"We have the epidemic under control with these lockdown orders, and we can start thinking about relaxing those orders," said Neeraj Sood, a professor and vice dean for research at the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy. "I think the county is ready to open on July 4th."
Businesses must submit detailed proposals to the county by June 30 outlining the safety measures they plan to introduce to protect workers and customers, including social distancing rules and employee access to personal protective equipment.
"I really do believe, as far as I'm concerned, if we move forward in a cautious way and work with all of our sectors ... that we could be discussing opening many of these sectors before the Fourth of July weekend," said Kathryn Barger, chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
On Friday, the Department of Justice sent a letter to L.A. city Mayor Eric Garcetti and Barbara Ferrer, the county's public health director, warning that a long-term lockdown "may be both arbitrary and unlawful." In the letter, the DOJ said it recognized the city and county's duty to protect residents but that "governmental authority, however, is not limitless, and must be exercised reasonably."
With more than 10 million residents spread out across 4,000 square miles, the county must contend with dozens of cities and unincorporated communities that have their own mayors, city councils, school districts, police departments and even health departments.
Meeting the July 4 target date will be a mammoth undertaking tied to science and data, not public sentiment, health officials cautioned.
"We have to do a lot of things right so we can actually get to that date," Ferrer said. "I think the reality is that we are going to really aim together to get there as quickly as possible, but we're going to pay attention to the data and science."
Los Angeles County, which surpassed 2,000 COVID-19 deaths Thursday, accounts for nearly half of California's 86,000 confirmed cases and deaths, according to public health officials.
As the county prepares for reopening, a new study led by Sood suggests that more residents have been infected than confirmed case counts show. According to the ongoing serology research by USC and the county health department, about 3 percent of residents have contracted the coronavirus, Sood said.
"This means we're nowhere near the end of this epidemic," he said. "You have to have a long-term plan on the horizon for policy planning."
Health experts say the development, testing and production of a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away. But no economy can afford to go that long without collapsing.
Already, more than 1 million unemployment claims have been filed in Los Angeles County since stay-at-home orders were issued in mid-March, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. More than 75 percent of the jobs projected to have been lost paid less than $50,000 a year.
"A lockdown is not sustainable in any way politically, economically or health-wise over an 18-month period," Sood said. "So then the question becomes how do you start opening gradually and safely so that you don't overwhelm the health care system but at the same time you keep your economy running?"
One industry that could see a gradual reopening soon is Hollywood, where TV, film and commercial production remains at a standstill. On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom sat down with filmmakers and other entertainment industry leaders, promising to release guidelines on Memorial Day for reopening the industry.
Newsom said he was encouraged by the roundtable, including insights from Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, who said the company hopes to share lessons learned from its productions that have resumed in Iceland, Sweden and South Korea.
"The key to this, I think, is getting to the place where we have the safety of everyone on the cast and crew ensured," Sarandos said at the roundtable. "To do that, it's things like fast, dependable testing at scale, and our ability to lead that around the world is very, very important."
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California relaxed some of its reopening criteria earlier this week, paving the way for much of the state to allow dining at restaurants. Under the guidelines, 53 of 58 counties across the state could be eligible to reopen faster than the statewide restrictions outline. Los Angeles County was not on the list.
"Bottom line is people can go at their own pace," Newsom said. "L.A. County is in a different position than other parts of the state. They can move at their own pace based on their own local conditions."
Reopening criteria allow counties to have up to 25 cases per 100,000 residents or positive rates no higher than an 8 percent among people tested for the coronavirus.
Los Angeles County's positive rate was hovering around 9 percent Wednesday, public health officials said.
"Whatever we do will be done very cautiously and with the data provided by our health outcomes," said Hilda Solis, a member of the county Board of Supervisors. "It's going to be a process that's going to continue."