The Trump administration sent a warning letter Friday to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti saying the Department of Justice is concerned the city may pursue “an arbitrary and heavy-handed approach” to stay-at-home orders.
Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Rights Division, pointed to what he said were public comments by Garcetti and Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s director of public health.
“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,” Dreiband wrote. “Any such approach may be both arbitrary and unlawful.”
The letter was also addressed to Ferrer.
Garcetti defended the city’s approach to the health crisis at a news briefing Friday when asked about the Justice Department‘s criticisms. “We were able to do this and save lives,” he said, adding that the city collaborated with businesses, employees and labor groups on the region’s response.
“Together, with science, the numbers will always guide us forward,” Garcetti said. “There is nothing else. There’s no games, there’s nothing else going on.”
The mayor issued a stay-at-home order for Los Angeles in March, extending it twice. But he has signaled that restrictions would be loosened in the coming weeks.
Over the last month, beaches, golf courses, tennis courts and hiking trails have reopened, and retail stores now allow curbside pickup.
Ferrer said this month at a public meeting that the stay-at-home orders will “with all certainty” be extended for the next few months, which led some to believe that the status quo would remain in place through the summer.
Her comment drew widespread attention, and Garcetti appeared on television news programs later that day, seeking to clarify the region’s response to the health crisis.
He also released a statement that day saying that “while the city’s Safer at Home order will remain in place beyond May 15, we will also continue to adjust the order gradually — to safely allow more activities, more businesses to operate, and more Angelenos to get back to work.”
In response to Friday’s letter, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health spokesman Bernard Tolliver said “the quote was taken out of context” but didn’t elaborate. Health orders are being modified on a “regular basis to support reopening sectors and relaxing restrictions,” Tolliver said.
Sign up for the latest news, best stories and what they mean for you, plus answers to your questions.
The letter to Garcetti came the same day that Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, singled out Los Angeles as one of three regions where persistent spread remains a significant concern.
Speaking with reporters at the White House, Birx said the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Chicago and Washington, D.C., remain a concern.
Birx asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with those areas “to really understand where are these new cases coming from, and what do we need to do to prevent them in the future.”
Garcetti, when asked Friday about Birx’s comments, said the L.A. region is “nowhere near the top of the infection rates, the cases and the deaths.”
Many in the Los Angeles region have followed the stay-at-home orders over the last few months, which political leaders have credited with slowing the virus’ spread.
Some protesters seeking to have the order lifted and the economy fully reopened have demonstrated outside Los Angeles City Hall and the Getty House, the official residence of the mayor, during the pandemic.
Similar demonstrations have been held in Orange County.
Times staff writer Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.