With New Closures, LA County Risks Turning the War on Poverty into a War on the Poor

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

On Monday, Los Angeles County officials began enforcing a slew of new measures aimed at helping Los Angeles County officials feel as though they’re doing something to stop a recent spike in coronavirus cases.

Among these are stricter occupancy caps for indoor and outdoor businesses—with perhaps the most severe ones affecting local restaurants, whose indoor and outdoor seating areas will now be capped at 0% occupancy.

It shouldn’t go unnoticed that these restrictions disproportionately affect lower-income individuals, especially younger workers, single parents, and students who need the flexibility of food service work as much as they need the pay.

Nor should it be ignored that the decision to shutter all LA County restaurants, whose employees make an average of $15.92/hour, was authorized by Barbara Ferrer, LA County’s (unelected) director of public health, whose yearly salary is $465, 411. (To be fair, that amount slips to a cool $330,000 if you don’t price in benefits like health insurance, vacation, and retirement pay).

Barbara Ferrer, LA County Health Director

You might be forgiven for thinking that there must be overwhelming data linking outdoor dining directly to LA’s recent spike in COVID-19 case rates—along with plenty of evidence to suggest restaurateurs are shirking safety measures, and outdoor patrons behaving recklessly, contributing to the spread. Nothing less, you might suppose, could justify county officials’ 3-2 decision to forcibly close shoestring-budget businesses, whose profit margins are razor thin in their best years, and who have spent the past several months burning through thousands of dollars—often in loans—to make their establishments comply with outdoor-only guidelines.

You’d be wrong.

When Janice Hahn, a county supervisor skeptical of the new strictures, requested a list of Los Angeles restaurants that had “been the site of workplace virus outbreaks,” LA County health officer Muntu Davis’ response was:

“Um… I’ll have to pull that number up.”

No number has been pulled up to date.

Hahn then asked for recent evidence linking outdoor dining to the new spike in LA’s case rate.

“The best data to give you in relationship to, uh, the contributions coming from people dining out at restaurants,” Muntu said, stammering slightly, “is, comes from, actually, the CDC. Um, there was a case-controlled study… from 11 outpatient healthcare facilities in 10 states.” (One of the facilities surveyed was in California, albeit in Palo Alto—some 320 miles from Los Angeles, which is the only California county to close outdoor restaurants.)

Conducted in July and published in September, the study shows that people who had tested positive for COVID-19 at one of the 11 outpatient facilities were “approximately twice as likely” to have gone to an indoor or outdoor dining establishment within 14 days of symptom onset, compared to those who had tested negative for COVID-19 at the same facilities.

But the July study, as FOX 11 LA investigative correspondent Bill Melugin notes, “made no distinction between indoor/outdoor results.” Moreover, “LA County Public Health was unable to cite any of their own evidence” directly linking outdoor restaurants in Los Angeles to the November spike in the Los Angeles case rate.

Even the officials supporting the crackdowns seem to be having a hard time believing their own hype: Hours after warning that outdoor dining was “a most dangerous situation” and voting to close all eateries, LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl was spotted dining on the patio of a local Santa Monica restaurant.

If neither scientific evidence nor intellectual conviction can explain the Board of Supervisors’ decision, what can? The simplest and most charitable answer is that people—especially people in charge of governing institutions—are primed to operate according to the “do-something” principle. The logic of the “do-something” principle goes something like this:

1. The government should do something.

2. This is something.

3. The government should do it.

Take into account the fact that the government is doing more and more “somethings” lately, and anything that the government is not doing immediately becomes fodder for bureaucratic overreach the next time something undesirable occurs.

But to call COVID-19 “undesirable” would be an exceptional understatement. And because it’s contagious, the choice to engage in high-risk activity has potentially deadly consequences for those notdirectly involved.

So, what should be done—and who should do it?

Neighboring Pasadena County health officials have a more reasonable idea—even though it means more work for them: rather than forcing all restaurants to bolt up their doors (or, rather, lock down their patios), they’re allowing CDC-compliant restaurants to remain open, while selectively (and temporarily) shutting down those who are violating safety guidelines. (As of this article’s writing, they’ve only needed to close five.)

When asked why Los Angeles County couldn’t do something similar, Ferrer’s reply was that the size of the county made it impossible for the local health department to monitor individual restaurants effectively. Admittedly, with over 10 million residents and some 31,000 restaurants, LA County is the most populous county in America. Ferrer has a point.

The point is this: When centralized bodies and unelected officials have the power to make decisions that so dramatically (not to mention arbitrarily) alter the lives and livelihoods of such a wide swath of people, the consequences can be catastrophic. This is true on a state and local level as much as it is on a national one. Why grant so much authority, over so many lives, to so few people, who know so little about the situations of the people they govern—especially when those in charge unwittingly admit that their job gives them more power than they can or should handle?

Rather than acknowledging this, however, some LA county officials are choosing to do what’s easiest for them (and their six-figure paychecks—which would likely become smaller if the size of their jurisdiction shrank): governing from the top-down, at the expense of bottom-level earners.

In full disclosure, I cannot for the life of me remember the last time I ate at a restaurant. I can, however, recall the years I spent working at restaurants and witnessing the extent to which so many regulatory policies harmed the very people they were intended to help.Admitting that a problem won’t go away just because the government “does something”—anything—is a bitter pill to swallow. But choking it down can start to cure an even more reckless denialism.

If policymakers are trying to fight a war on poverty, they should make sure they don’t mistakenly turn the weapons of that war against poverty’s victims.