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10 Million Residents, 88 Jurisdictions, 1 Outdoor Dining Ban

LOS ANGELES — Until late last month, outdoor dining — no masks required — was the closest thing to pre-pandemic normal for the 10 million residents of Los Angeles County. But amid a record-busting surge in hospitalizations and cases of the coronavirus, the county’s health department recently said outdoor dining must come to a complete halt for the first time since May.

This time, angry at the order and worried it would be the death knell for many of the 30,000 eateries sprawled across the vast county’s patchwork of 88 independent jurisdictions, several cash-strapped municipalities have pushed back and banded together — with votes to form their own health departments.

“It’s kind of like a mini secession,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “Their complaint is the county has a one-size-fits-all prescription.”

The discussions speak to the growing frustration over a countywide order that many elected officials said was inherently a hyperlocal issue.

While largely symbolic because there is no process for local jurisdictions to easily create their own health departments, city councils across the county have in recent days passed resolutions to do exactly that — or to annex and join a city that already has its own.

West Covina’s City Council was among the first to take such a vote. Lancaster, home to 158,000 in the high desert, followed suit last week, as did Beverly Hills. Now hard-hit Hawaiian Gardens, Commerce, Inglewood, West Hollywood and others are debating similar moves.

In West Covina, a San Gabriel Valley hub of 105,000 residents, Mayor Tony Wu called the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s outdoor dining ban, a three-week order that began the night before Thanksgiving, the spark that set off a state already in the throes of a major economic crisis.

“We’ve done everything they told us to do and now telling us to shut down isn’t right,” Mr. Wu said. “Look, I’m an immigrant mayor trying to do the right thing and that means a local policy for a local issue.”

In Beverly Hills, which has seen tourism dwindle and which faces a $27 million budget shortfall compared with last year, Mayor Lester Friedman said the county had “lost touch” with Angelenos.

And in Hawaiian Gardens, a working-class Latino hamlet forced to close a casino that is the city’s main employer and revenue generator, the city manager, Ernie Hernandez, said residents could not afford to eat or pay their bills. “I don’t know what the right answer is,” he said, “but shutting down again doesn’t seem to be it.”

Across the state, daily case reports have tripled in the past month, with more than 25,000 new infections reported on Tuesday. About 8,500 of them were in Los Angeles County, which now has more daily cases than at any point in the pandemic, setting daily records for nearly a week straight. On Tuesday, the county had about 3,000 people hospitalized, with nearly a quarter in intensive care units.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued a three-week lockdown order, which went into effect for much of the state on Monday, that also banned outdoor dining and superseded the Los Angeles County restrictions.

The county is a freeway-connected sprawl, with the city of Los Angeles’s four million residents an island within it. There are so many invisible borders for the dozens of municipalities within its limits that motorists often do not realize when they enter one town or leave another — confusion that could be exacerbated if there were multiple ordinances and orders across the county.

Many cities in the county operate their own law enforcement, fire and other government services, though only Pasadena and Long Beach have separate health departments — and the decision-making power that comes with it. (Pasadena offered outdoor dining until last week; Long Beach, citing rising coronavirus cases, did not.)

But local mayors lack authority over public schools, transportation and public health — control that largely rests with the county’s board of supervisors, which upheld the health department’s decision.

Last week, Judge James Chalfant of Los Angeles County temporarily agreed with the board of supervisors but ordered health officials to produce evidence supporting the ban. Then, in a decision on Tuesday, Judge Chalfant sided with the restaurants, limiting the ban to three weeks to prevent an “indefinite” closure order.

Although the state ban still supersedes this ruling, health officials now have about a week to provide a risk-benefit analysis in order to extend the closure. Epidemiologists have said prolonged gatherings without masks, even outside, drive spread.

It was not too long ago when California’s elected officials — among the first to impose wide-ranging lockdowns — took pride in an approach that had appeared to stave off the coronavirus.

Then came a series of dining gaffes that undermined pleas to avoid crowds, including Mr. Newsom and others failing to heed their own rules. In recent days, businesses and officials have seen a disparity in the most recent dining ban, with outdoor film crew catering spots remaining open, for example, while restaurants a few feet away are without a single diner.

Despite more than 1.3 million virus cases and roughly 20,000 deaths statewide since March, anger is bubbling, with recent protests against the new restrictions staged outside the homes of the county’s health director, county supervisors and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Many elected leaders said that while they had not yet sorted out what it would take to create new health departments, they were nonetheless forging ahead, with many city councils meeting this week to discuss a range of ideas, such as contracting for services in an à la carte approach.

Starting a department would not be easy — or without great financial cost.

Health departments inspect, grade and enforce restaurant safety, plus prepare and respond to health emergencies and outbreaks. Expensive to build from scratch — especially during a health crisis — they are staffed by specialists in short supply during a pandemic.

Plus, cities would need approval from the state’s public health department. Erica Pan, the state’s acting public health officer, who called this moment of rising cases “a critical tipping point where inaction and division could lead to loss of life,” said there was currently no process for approving new local health jurisdictions.

The spate of council decisions is not the first push to decentralize the county system. The city of Los Angeles proposed a health department in 2013 but shelved the idea after learning it would take up to two years to build and cost at least $333 million annually to operate, a plan that former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called “crazy, stupid” and “dangerous to the public health.”

The financial and infrastructure requirements were “impossible for us to implement,” said Miguel Santana, the city’s former chief administrative officer who is now the chief executive of Fairplex, a nonprofit space turned coronavirus testing center.

Los Angeles currently projects a budget shortfall of $675 million by June and is planning deep cuts. Mr. Garcetti has not spoken publicly about a new health department, and did not respond to requests for comment, but representatives said he continued to support the existing framework.

“If L.A. didn’t feel the need to have its own department, with all its power, money and size, that says something,” said Mr. Sonenshein, who has published three books on Los Angeles politics. “The dissatisfaction cities are expressing should be taken seriously, but you don’t necessarily need to redo everything.”

Rather than start from scratch, Mayor James Butts of Inglewood said, one option is regional alliances, like a collective South Bay health agency that is “focused on dining and retail.”

The South Bay Cities Council of Governments, a joint powers authority of 16 cities and communities in unincorporated Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, is weighing “annexing with a city that already has a health department,” he said.

A West Hollywood councilman, John D’Amico, acknowledged that creating a health department would be difficult but said elected leaders would keep pushing, hoping to move the county toward “sensible actions sooner to keep our community viable in 2021.”

While modifying blanket ordinances may have merits, the virus knows no borders. And with hospitals bracing for a post-Thanksgiving surge while also awaiting vaccine shipments, the wisest choice may be to exercise patience, some elected leaders said.

“Forming independent health departments on the fly, how many expert health officials do you think are out there to be hired?” asked Mayor Kevin McKeown of Santa Monica, one of the few mayors aligned with the county. “How many cities without money could hire them?”

“There’s so much coronavirus that being in a relatively open place in the company of other people is inherently not safe,” he continued. “We’ve had a tremendous resurgence in Southern California. We haven’t seen the worst of it. Not yet.”

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