As an outdoor dining ban from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health took effect Wednesday evening, Board of Supervisors Chair Kathryn Barger accused her government colleagues of "overreaching as it relates to not really gathering public input."
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Barger spoke with FOX Business following the board's meeting on Tuesday evening, in which county health officials admitted that there is no specific scientific evidence to back up claims of a direct link between outdoor dining and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
Instead, L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said that the "best information we have that’s very specific to restaurants" is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study targeting 11 different outpatient health care facilities in 10 states, which found patients with coronavirus were twice as likely to have dined out at a restaurant.
However, the study did not provide specific data distinguishing between infection rates among outdoor versus indoor dining and was conducted on a larger scale rather than specific to the Los Angeles County community.
"For [Dr. Davis] to say that they're depending on the CDC when we've been doing this for seven months and, in fact, have been doing inspections that we don't have data, and yet we are targeting one industry and saying with the number of cases rising we are going to set [restaurants] down to me is irresponsible," Barger said.
While Barger and Supervisor Janice Hahn presented a last-minute measure to overturn the decision, it failed by a vote of 3-2, with Supervisors Hilda Solis, Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas voicing their support for the order.
Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has more than 30 years of experience in public health, but her medical expertise is not in the area of infectious diseases.
Before becoming director of Los Angeles County's Department of Health, she served as the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, where she led a range of public health programs and built innovative partnerships to address inequities in health outcomes and support healthy communities and healthy families. Under her leadership, Boston saw significant improvements in health outcomes, including a decrease in the rates of childhood obesity, smoking and infant mortality.
Dr. Ferrer also served as director of health promotion and chronic disease prevention and director of the division of the maternal and child health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In addition, she served as chief strategy officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation focusing on programs surrounding food, health and well-being.
Ferrer received her Ph.D. in Social Welfare from Brandeis University, a Master of Arts in Public Health from Boston University, a Master of Arts in Education from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Likewise, the three supervisors who voted in support of the outdoor dining ban have a wide variety of experience in areas including law, education, business and public policy, but none have a background in the medical profession or infectious diseases.
Ridley-Thomas holds a bachelor's degree in social relations and a master's degree in religious studies from Immaculate Heart College and a Ph.D. in social ethics and policy analysis from the University of Southern California. Prior to his election to the Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas served the 26th District in the California State Senate, where he chaired the Senate’s committee on business, professions and economic development. He also served in the Senate as chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus in 2008, the California State Assembly as the chair of the Jobs, Economic Development, and Economy Committee, and the Los Angeles City Council as Council President pro Tempore.
Kuehl graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978 and went on to be a professor at Loyola, UCLA, and USC Schools of Law. She also co-founded the California Women's Law Center, became the Founding Director of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College and served as a Regents’ Professor in Public Policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. In addition, she served eight years in the California State Senate and six years in the California State Assembly, and served as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Natural Resources and Water Committee, and Budget Subcommittee on Water, Energy, and Transportation, as well as the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
Solis graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a bachelor's in Political Science and earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California. She served as secretary of labor under President Obama and represented the 32nd Congressional District in California where she focused on expanding access to affordable health care, protecting the environment and improving the lives of working families.
Dr. Abigail Devereaux, a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Economic Growth and assistant professor of economics at the W. Frank Barton Business School at Wichita State University, noted that policymakers have a history of overstepping during times of crisis when they feel they have a political obligation to intervene.
"A policymaker, an executive board, a committee want to intervene because it is politically popular," Devereaux said. "Unfortunately, intervention tends to be politically popular, particularly during crises. It gives something for people to believe in."
She argued that a better strategy for policymakers dealing with the pandemic would be to take a step back and focus on educating the community on best practices to stay healthy and directing financial resources to those who are most vulnerable rather than imposing restrictions without a scientific-based rationale to back it up.
"I think that scientific advice is crucial in any sort of decision-making here and that it should never be left completely up to political advisers," she said.
Barger advised that the public should not just assume everything a government official says about the pandemic is true, encouraging them to ask questions and seek out scientific evidence.
"I would say is that it's important for people to engage in government and to hold government officials accountable and across the board. And if the data is not supporting the science, then they should question," Barger said. "I think we've become a society that lets government dictate what we do without asking questions. And I'm telling you, as someone who is in government, but also is very much involved with the private sector, question government, do not assume that what they're saying is always right."
She argues that Public Health's decision is simply a "knee-jerk reaction to something that has no scientific backing to to show that we are going to slow the spread."
"If anything, we have basically put a final nail in many of these restaurants coffins," she added.
Barger has pointed to data from the Department of Public Health that shows only 10 to 15% of positive cases reported come from dining out with someone who tested positive, while more than 50% reported being at a private social gathering with someone who tested positive.
She believes that by closing restaurants who are in compliance, the county may adversely incentivize people to host and attend more private gatherings without safety precautions in place.
"It's frustrating to me that that we are doing something that has no correlation to the surge, none," she said. "We know what it is. It is public gatherings. And by closing restaurants, many of these people that have reservations are going to go where? Gatherings with other families because many of them didn't have any plans. So I think it's going to have the complete opposite effect."
The Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation has predicted that approximately 700,000 jobs in the food industry would be lost during the county's shutdown, and 75% of all projected job losses would affect people earning $50,000 or less.
The comments from Barger and Devereux come as the Department of Public Health unveiled a new model Wedneday which estimates that one out of every 145 people in L.A. County is currently infectious with the disease, a drastic jump from two months ago when the rate was 1 in 880 county residents.
Los Angeles county's transmission rate, referred to as the R number, has reached 1.27 — the highest since the early days of the pandemic in mid-March. "With an R this high the cases really can multiply quite quickly," said Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the county Department of Health Services.
Ghaly warned that under the current trends, cases could double every two weeks, or quadruple within a month, potentially leading to a shortage of hospital beds, especially in intensive care units.
The county reported 4,311 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, as well as 49 new deaths. Total cases since the start of the pandemic stands at 378,323. Overall, California has reported more than 1.14 million cases, with 18,350 new cases confirmed Tuesday alone. The state's 7-day positivity rate has increased to 6.5% and there has been a total of 18,875 deaths.
According to the latest update from Johns Hopkins University, the United States has surpassed 12.7 million coronavirus cases and more than 261,000 related deaths.