The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health admitted during a Board of Supervisor's meeting Tuesday that there is no hard scientific evidence linking the recent COVID-19 surge to back up their move to shut down outdoor dining.
In laying out the department's case to proceed with the recently proposed restrictions set to take effect on Wednesday, Dr. Muntu Davis said that restaurant-specific contact tracing data around the coronavirus was scarce, “as a public health department we have to look at the highest risks, and where we can reduce those risks,” adding that restaurants fit the high-risk category.
Instead of specific data, the health official cited a CDC study that targeted 11 different outpatient healthcare facilities in 10 states as the "best information we have." The study found that those patients with COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined out at a restaurant.
However, according to FOX 11's Bill Melugin, the study's application to Los Angeles County's situation is flawed due to the fact that the research does not discern between indoor and outdoor dining and was conducted throughout the United States rather than within the specific community.
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors chair Kathryn Barger argued during the meeting that without firm data showing that restaurants are specifically a leading cause in the spike in COVID-19 cases, she “cannot in good conscience” support the proposed modification to shut down outdoor dining on Wednesday.
“I feel that what is happening today is truly going to devastate not only the workers but their families,” Barger added, saying that she felt the closures were “arbitrary and punitive.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn noted she had never seen the type of community pushback that the board has been hearing and noted that the public is "really losing faith and trust in the decisions that we’re making.” She questioned why the Department of Public Health wouldn't just target restaurants not following the rules rather than prohibiting all outdoor dining.
Dr. Barbra Ferrer, director of the Department of Public Health, said that she wanted to be “realistic” about enforcement.
“There are 31,000 restaurants in LA County, and our team, as hard as they’re working, they get to about 300 a week," Dr. Ferrer said.
She pointed out that social media has detailed multiple examples of restaurants not following social distancing guidelines, and that roughly 19 percent of restaurants her office has investigated have been found not in compliance with COVID-19 related guidelines.
Ferrer pointed out that there is “inherent risk” at restaurants because customers are not always wearing masks, and are often gathering with members of other households over a meal, though she is “well aware” of the frustrations felt by workers, business owners, and diners.
Both Barger and Hahn proposed a motion to overturn the Department of Public Health's decision, but it failed by a vote of 2-3.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who opposed overturning the order, said that she “agrees with what our healthcare officers are saying to us,” though she is “not indifferent” to the economic issues for restaurants. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl agreed with Solis, adding that she had heard from workers’ rights groups who were pleased about the decision to shut down in-person dining. Though those groups were “worried about revenue” for workers, “they would be more protected. They’ve been worried about things like approaching tables without masks on.”
In an interview with FOX Business following the meeting, Barger said that the Department of Public Health citing a CDC study rather than presenting concrete evidence is "irresponsible."
"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.”
She added that the decision by the board "speaks volumes to the fact that government now is overreaching as it relates to not really gathering public input."
"I would say that it's important for people to engage in government and to hold government officials accountable across the board," she continued. "And if the data is not supporting the science, then they should question. 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."
Barger also said she believes public health panicked when the county's case numbers began to rise, and that the order is simply a "knee-jerk reaction to something that has no scientific backing 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.
While she is disappointed in the outcome, Barger said that she knows she did the right thing to push back against the order and fight for an industry that "is being targeted unfairly and and is being subjected to really unfair practice.”
The decision came after a lawsuit by the Restaurant Association on Tuesday seeking a court order to halt the ban on outdoor dining.
Hahn, who was also disappointed by the outcome, stressed the need for federal financial intervention.
"It’s killing me to think that at this point, a few weeks before the holidays, we are considering an order to force restaurants to maybe shut down permanently. We know they will lay off employees if they are restricted to takeout and curbside only," she said. "I really don’t think that’s something I want to do... We are careening down another economically tragic road."
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.