The year 2020 will forever be connected with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a twisting, painful year, and though cases and deaths are currently soaring, there were times when the situation was markedly different. Here is a month-by-month look at how Los Angeles wrestled with a crisis of historic proportions.
On January 4, the World Health Organization reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, and on January 26 the L.A. County Department of Public Health reported the first confirmed local case of the novel coronavirus, in a visitor from China. Still, it was off the radar screen of most Angelenos. Mayor Eric Garcetti would later tell Los Angeles, “I think it was toward the end of January that I started talking to my team about this is something we have to plan for the contingency of.”
As the month began, COVID-19 still seemed a world—or at least a couple continents—away, and there were other medical concerns; on February 7 the Public Health department warned of a local measles outbreak. On February 24, the Centers for Disease Control reported 53 confirmed cases in the United States, and baby steps were being taken in L.A. County, with Garcetti discussing preparedness measures with political and healthcare leaders.
Concern grew as the virus spread internationally. Local leaders began talking up the need for people to wash their hands and dispose of used tissues. Toilet paper started to disappear from store shelves, and on March 4, with seven confirmed cases in the county, Garcetti declared a local emergency. In the following days social media filled with images of grocery store shelves picked clean amid panic buying. On March 11, the WHO declared the virus a pandemic, and the next day Garcetti ordered the cancelation of events in city facilities that would bring together more than 50 people. On March 13, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that school campuses would close and students would shift to online learning.
The COVID tsunami hit L.A. and Angelenos became familiar with County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer. On March 15, Garcetti stunned the city by ordering gyms, theaters, nightclubs, and other businesses to close, with restaurants restricted to takeout or delivery only. Four days later his Safer at Home order mandated that people stay home unless they were essential workers, or were exercising or taking care of crucial business. The economy ground to a halt, nightlife died, and hands were rubbed raw from incessant washing. Garcetti appeared on TV nearly every evening, seeking to calm a frazzled public. The U.S. Naval Ship Mercy arrived in Los Angeles on March 27, and people traded Netflix suggestions.
L.A. County case count on March 31: 3,011 total cases, 54 deaths
As cases spiked, testing ramped up and the city scrambled to secure personal protective equipment. “Flatten the curve” was a mantra, and on April 2 Garcetti recommended that people wear masks when in public; a mandate for essential workers to mask up came eight days later. Parks were closed on Easter Sunday to prevent gatherings and a battalion of health efforts were introduced, from new protocols at farmers markets to contracting with empty hotels to house homeless individuals. Local traffic and crime dropped while unemployment surged.
April 30 Count: 23,182 total cases, 1,111 deaths
The regional shutdown seemed to work, and as concerns about overwhelmed hospitals diminished, some restrictions were relaxed. On May 6, florists, toy stores, book stores, and other businesses were allowed to offer curbside pickup. Hiking trails and beaches soon came back online, though after May 13 anyone outdoors was required to wear a mask. On May 26 county health officials said stores could reopen, with limited indoor capacity. Then, the pandemic was overshadowed by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. In the following days, the streets of L.A. and most U.S. cities filled with charged-up, chanting protesters.
May 31 Count: 54,996 total cases, 2,363 deaths
Although continuing protests initially sparked concern about spread of the virus, a larger swath of the economy reopened. Film and TV production resumed June 12, the same day that gyms and other businesses got a green light. Bars began serving a week later. Yet hospitalizations began to rise, swelling from 1,357 on June 1 to nearly 1,800 at the end of the month. On June 28, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the closure of bars and nightspots in Los Angeles and other counties with rising caseloads. L.A. County hit 100,000 total cases the next day.
June 30 Count: 103,529 total cases, 3,369 deaths
Pullbacks came quickly as cases spiked. Indoor dining was halted on July 1, and 12 days later, Los Angeles and other counties were ordered to close indoor gyms, salons, and malls. On July 20, the county hit a peak with 2,232 people hospitalized. Calls for wearing masks again took precedence. On July 17, Garcetti announced that 50,000 households would each receive $2,000 in rental relief, though 200,000 people had applied for the aid.
July 31 Count: 188,481 total cases, 4,621 deaths
The LAUSD school year began with approximately 500,000 K-12 students forced to learn from home, many with devices and internet access supplied by the district. The county recorded a grim milestone of 5,000 COVID-19 deaths on Aug. 11, but overall conditions improved; on August 25 the county recorded fewer than 1,000 new cases for the first time since the beginning of June, and the 1,043 people hospitalized on August 31 was the lowest tally since early May. On August 31, Newsom introduced a tiered system for reopenings in the state, but Los Angeles remained in the most restricted level.
August 31 Count: 241,768 total cases, 5,784 deaths
L.A. County hit 6,000 deaths on September 5 and 250,000 total cases five days later, but worries of a Labor Day spike failed to materialize. As the weeks passed hospitalizations fell, the daily average of new cases dropped below 800, the testing positivity rate dipped to 3 percent, and Garcetti’s evening briefings grew sporadic. People ate and drank outdoors and cautious optimism took hold. On September 22, the county even reached the metrics threshold to move into a less restrictive tier—providing the numbers could hold for two weeks.
September 30 Count: 270,229 total cases, 6,551 deaths
Hospitalizations remained below 800 all month, and on October 9 the state approved outdoor (masked) gatherings of up to three households. However, toward the end of October, the count began to rise, leading to speculation that groups watching the Lakers and Dodgers win championships was sparking a spread. Although some in-person school services were allowed, in the effort to quell a surge local leaders essentially canceled Halloween. The county reached 7,000 deaths on October 26.
Oct. 31 Count: 307,618 total cases, 7,071 deaths
As the weather cooled, numbers went in the wrong direction. Daily case counts that were mostly below 1,000 in early October shot to more than 2,000 by November 5, surpassed 3,000 nine days later, and then eclipsed 5,000. On November 20, the county tightened restrictions, including enacting a 10 p.m. curfew for businesses, and restaurant owners protested a prohibition on outdoor dining. Garcetti and Ferrer pleaded with Angelenos not to gather with people outside their household on Thanksgiving. Long lines formed at testing centers.
Nov. 30 Count: 400,919 total cases, 7,700 deaths
Whether due to COVID fatigue, carelessness, or the inexorable march of a virus that spreads in cold weather, the figurative dam burst. Although Newsom enacted a regional stay-at-home order on December 3 that impacted L.A. County, daily case levels of around 7,000 at the start of the month were double that a few weeks later. The county has seen more than 300,000 new cases in December alone, and more than 7,000 people are currently hospitalized. Everyone is hoping for a speedy deployment of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but local leaders remain fearful that Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings will spark another, even deadlier surge in January.
Dec. 28 count: 733,325 total cases, 9,555 deaths