For most Angelenos, the impact of COVID-19 hit home on March 15, 2020, when Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that, effective at midnight, restaurants would be restricted to takeout and delivery service, while bars, theaters, and many other businesses would need to shut down. Life instantly and inexorably changed.
Yet March 15 was far from the only date of note, and the first major move in Los Angeles’ battle with the novel coronavirus took place exactly one year ago today, even if no one realized it at the time. Here is a rundown of the early response to the COVID crisis, with actions that revealed the severity of the disease, along with steps that showed how little we knew.
March 4, 2020
On the day after Super Tuesday, the only thing that most anyone wants to talk about is Joe Biden’s rollicking performance at the polls. When it comes to COVID-19, attention fixates on Washington state, where ten people have died.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti responds to the emerging threat by declaring a local emergency. The largely bureaucratic step aims to improve coordination with health agencies and, as a press release notes, ease “access to state and federal funds should they become necessary in the response to COVID-19.”
The day also brings the first published daily coronavirus briefing from the County Department of Public Health. Seven cases have been identified, and in the statement County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis declares that “there is no current need for significant social distancing,” though he warns that might become necessary in the future.
County Health officials have identified 13 local cases of COVID-19, all linked to travelers. Director of Public Health Dr. Barbara Ferrer holds a media availability to discuss the virus, and in the daily published update she suggests that people “take time now to plan for the possibility of school and business closures.” Outside Los Angeles, organizers of the South by Southwest festival announce that the event, slated to start March 13 in Austin, has been canceled.
Although concern is rising, the Los Angeles Marathon takes place, attracting tens of thousands of runners and volunteers.
There are increasing calls for people to stay home when sick and wash hands frequently, and County Health officials have recorded 16 cases. Yet in many ways, life continues. Garcetti travels to Sacramento for a meeting of the California Big City Mayors group. A few weeks later, he discusses that trip, telling Los Angeles, “The planes were already pretty empty. We were socially distancing. It was hand sanitizer all day long in the capitol. You know that big bear that’s in front of the governor’s officer, which is already known as ‘Bacteria Bear.’ People were like, ‘Don’t touch.’
“A meeting that was going to be exclusively about homelessness became half coronavirus and half homelessness with the governor, and almost all our conversations started to focus on that.”
The County Health Department identifies one new case, bringing the local total to 17. More significant for some is when organizers of the Coachella festival announce that the April happening, slated to feature Frank Ocean and a reformed Rage Against the Machine, will be postponed to October. Eventually it will be canceled.
Store shelves are emptying even as the official county coronavirus case total sits at just 27 (test kits were severely limited). But the day is full of major developments: the World Health Organization classifies the outbreak as a pandemic, and President Donald Trump announces a 30-day ban on travel from European countries to the United States. Jaws drop in the evening when Tom Hanks reveals that he and wife Rita Wilson have tested positive for the virus in Australia, and are isolating. Then, the NBA abruptly suspends its season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tests positive.
In the effort to slow the spread of the virus, Garcetti unfurls immediate new limitations on public gatherings, including banning events or meetings on city property that will bring together more than 50 people. City Hall is closed to the public and non-essential travel by city employees is halted. The mayor instructs department heads to develop telecommuting plans for their employees.
Yet in a clear indication of how little the world knows about fighting the virus, the announcement comes as Garcetti stands shoulder-to-shoulder with approximately two dozen city and county leaders. No one wears a mask. The same day, he and UCLA Dr. Anne Rimoin appear in a three-minute video to discuss the virus; there are about six millimeters of distance between them.
Amid a drumbeat by parents and teachers’ unions, Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Austin Beutner delivers a Friday announcement, stating that on the following Monday, school campuses will close to in-person instruction; the order is for two weeks, though this will become a year of distance learning for approximately 500,000 K-12 students. The district will later provide internet-connected devices to students who lack one and initiate a program that has now served more than 100 million free meals.
Additionally, Garcetti announces the closure of all 73 city libraries (they have yet to reopen, though there is a book-pickup program). The County Department of Public Health recommends limiting events to ten people, and the daily published briefing states, “Social distancing is the best and most effective tool to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.”
The Public Health department identifies 11 new cases, the single highest daily total yet, and declares that eight of the 53 total cases likely stemmed from community transmission. Garcetti issues a flurry of Tweets, everything from noting that indoor facilities at parks are closed, to urging people not to hoard items. “There is no food shortage and stores will restock,” he says.
The day life in Los Angeles forever changes: Garcetti holds a televised evening briefing to announce an emergency order. He declares that dine-in service at restaurants must cease, and bars and nightclubs that don’t serve food must close. He urges houses of worship to limit gatherings and puts a moratorium on residential evictions.
How significant did we think COVID-19 was at the time? The order was set to run through March 31.
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