Los Angeles County reopened some beach parking lots heading into Memorial Day weekend and authorized retail businesses inside enclosed shopping malls to reopen with curbside pickup service only, while maintaining warnings about the continued spread of the coronavirus.
The changes came as county officials braced for a holiday weekend that could again challenge residents' resolve to adhere to stay-at-home restrictions that bar large gatherings and require face coverings and social distancing when residents interact with others.
Santa Monica was seeing a noticeable reduction in the usual holiday crowds early Saturday, according to a sergeant with the city's police department.
"It's been so far, so good, right now," Sgt. Chad Goodwin told City News Service shortly after noon Saturday. "And I would say there is significantly less (at the beaches) than your typical Memorial Day holiday."
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Beachgoers, Goodwin said, have been following the social distancing rules laid out by county, and the same appeared true for beaches in the Los Angeles Police Department's jurisdiction, said Officer Rosario Cervantes of the LAPD Media Relations Section.
"We're advising people to wear face coverings and practice social distancing," said Cervantes, adding that arrests "will be taken only as a last resort."
County health officials reported another 1,032 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 41 additional deaths Saturday, raising the county's totals to 44,055 cases and 2,090 deaths.
"Our prayers and thoughts are with those families and friends mourning the loss of their loved ones," said Barbara Ferrer, the county's public health director. "We are acutely aware of the need to continue to take steps that reduce the spread of COVID-19 during our recovery journey. Thanks to everyone's efforts, our data points to steady declines in hospitalizations, deaths, and the percent of people testing positive. For example, the percent of people tested who are positive in L.A. County is now at an all-time low of 8.5%; in comparison, New York City's positivity rate is currently 28%. The increase we see in our number of cases is because we have increased the number of people we are testing, and this is a good thing. We are testing more people per capita in L.A. County than the state of California, the state of Washington, the state of Georgia, the United States, and Seattle King-County. Our increased testing capacity allows for quicker identification, treatment, and isolation of people who are positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts; this helps reduce the spread of the virus."
Ferrer said Friday that 93% of the people who died had underlying health conditions, a slight increase of the 92% level of the past several weeks.
"Over 35% of us here in L.A. County, sometimes the number can be as high as 40%, have underlying health conditions," she said.
The county on Thursday reopened its 22-mile bike path that stretches from Pacific Palisades to Torrance. The path had remained closed despite beaches reopening last week for active use, in hopes of preventing large gatherings of people on the often-congested trail.
On Friday, the county also announced the reopening of parking lots at Dockweiler State Beach, Will Rogers State Beach, Zuma Beach and Surfrider Beach, but only at partial capacity. With beaches reopening for at least partial use, issues have arisen with people flocking to the coast but being forced to find street parking in coastal neighborhoods, leading to congestion issues.
Hours after the county announcement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city will reopen parking lots at Cabrillo and Venice beaches, as well as beach bike paths running through the city.
"Our beaches, have already been open ... to active recreation like swimming and surfing and running and walking," Garcetti said. "And now, biking is allowed once again, but we want to prevent crowds, so even during this holiday weekend, don't gather with others."
Sports facilities at Venice Beach remain closed for the time being, the mayor said.
County officials warned anyone heading to the beach that face coverings are mandatory when not in the water. The active-use restriction also forbids sunbathing on the sand, meaning chairs, umbrellas, canopies and coolers are still barred. Piers, boardwalks and volleyball courts also remain off- limits.
Kathryn Barger, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said "based on the week that we opened up the trails and golf courses, I was very proud of the LA County residents who really did recognize wearing a mask and the social distancing that was in place. So I'm confident moving into this holiday, people will also recognize that is the reason why we talk about Safer At Home moving to safer at work and safer in our communities. Because people are recognizing that is the only way we're going to stop or slow down the spread of this virus.
"So I'm encouraging people -- I know we are lifting restrictions in certain areas. Please be responsible. This is the only way we are going to move toward the next phase of opening. I know people are talking about opening up small businesses. ... The only way we're going to get there is if we continue to keep this flat. So I would encourage you all to just honor the request. It's not a big ask, given what we have in store for us."
The county on Friday also authorized retail stores located in enclosed shopping malls to reopen for curbside merchandise pickup only. Customers are still not permitted to enter enclosed shopping malls. County officials urged shopping malls to establish clearly marked curbside pickup areas for customers to pick up goods.
Also approved on Friday were car parades to allow for celebrations of graduations, birthdays or other occasions. The guidelines, however, require participants to be inside enclosed vehicles -- no convertibles -- and if windows are open, vehicle occupants must wear face coverings.
Large-scale parades must have a designated host and security to ensure compliance with health regulations.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner praised the change, which will allow students to celebrate their graduations.
"As we have said -- and have wanted to do all along -- we would allow those at our schools to plan celebrations which include gatherings as long as they are in accordance with guidelines from Los Angeles County health authorities,'' he said.
Barger introduced a motion Friday, co-authored by Supervisor Janice Hahn, to ask the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office, County Counsel and Ferrer to pursue a variance with the state once the county has achieved readiness under the state's identified criteria.
This motion, which will be heard at the board's Tuesday meeting, also supports efforts for interested cities or regions within the county to apply for their own partial variance based on the state's readiness criteria.
"I am fully committed to the phased reopening of Los Angeles County in light of the substantive measures that we have taken to successfully slow the spread of COVID-19,'' Barger said.
"This includes ensuring for adequate hospital capacity, increasing the access and availability of testing and contact tracing and implementing protections for vulnerable populations. These efforts, coupled with our public health data that indicates a lower level of risk in reopening than previously thought, supports expediency in moving our region through Stage 2 and into Stage 3."
Also Friday, Garcetti defended the city's actions during the pandemic after an assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division sent a cautionary letter addressed to the mayor and Ferrer.
"Reports of your recent public statements indicate that you suggested the possibility of long-term lockdown of the residents in the city and county of Los Angeles, regardless of the legal justification for such restrictions. Any such approach may be both arbitrary and unlawful," the letter said, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"Together, with science, the numbers will always guide us forward," Garcetti said Friday. "There is nothing else. There's no games, there's
nothing else going on."