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Coronavirus outbreak hits Los Angeles Apparel with more than 300 infections, 4 employee deaths

 Workers inside  Los Angeles Apparel
Workers inside Los Angeles Apparel in 2017.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When the coronavirus began rapidly spreading in the spring, Los Angeles Apparel was one of many fashion brands that altered operations to make reusable masks.

The company’s flamboyant founder, Dov Charney, said in March that his 400 employees were trying to keep up with the desperate need for protection and that he hoped to eventually make 100,000 masks a week.

But authorities now say a coronavirus outbreak has struck Los Angeles Apparel, with more than 300 infections and four virus-related deaths among the manufacturer’s workers.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said that it first shut down operations at the South L.A. garment manufacturer June 27 after inspectors found “flagrant violations” of public health infection control orders and said the company failed to cooperate with an investigation of a reported coronavirus outbreak. On Thursday, the department ordered the continued suspension of Los Angeles Apparel’s operations, officials said Friday.

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“The death of four dedicated garment workers is heartbreaking and tragic,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “Business owners and operators have a corporate, moral and social responsibility to their employees and their families to provide a safe work environment that adheres to all of the health officer directives — this responsibility is important, now more than ever, as we continue to fight this deadly virus.”

In an interview, Charney said his company’s communications with the department have been “a maze of conflicting directions” and called its characterization of Los Angeles Apparel’s alleged negligence “outrageous.” He said that the company has worked to help all its workers get tested several times over the last few months and that higher infection rates in communities such as South L.A. would naturally be reflected in a factory there.

“We believe that at all times — since the launch of the epidemic — we’ve been doing our best in doing social distancing and following every directive we’re aware of,” he said. “We’re dealing with a massive epidemic that has risen astronomically in our community, in South L.A., and it’s manifested itself in our factory.”

The outbreak is among the largest at a workplace reported so far in the county. In May, health officials announced outbreaks of COVID-19 had struck nine industrial facilities in Vernon, including five meatpacking plants. The largest outbreak occurred at the Smithfield Foods-owned Farmer John plant — producer of the Dodger Dog — where 153 of 1,837 employees tested positive for COVID-19 from March to May, the department said then.

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Three of the coronavirus-related deaths among Los Angeles Apparel workers occurred in early June, and one occurred in early July, according to health officials.

In its statement, the Public Health Department said a healthcare provider notified it June 19 of a potential outbreak. As part of the department’s investigation, health officials asked the company for a list of all employees that they could then compare to testing results that the department had received. The company, they said, failed to provide the list after multiple requests.

During a site visit June 26, the department stated, inspectors observed multiple violations of social distancing requirements and infection control protocols, including the use of cardboard as a barrier between workers. Based on that visit and the company’s failure to provide a full list of employees, the department said it decided to shut down operations until safety standards were met.

In early July, health officials said they received an “incomplete” list of company employees and used it to help determine the scale of the outbreak. The department stated that the company reopened with new employees in violation of its order. Charney contested this, saying that the department told him this week that the company could reopen.

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Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, said she began hearing in May from Los Angeles Apparel workers who had gotten sick from the coronavirus. Some, she said, had voiced concern about social distancing standards being followed consistently.

“With so many workers who are sick, with four deaths, with thwarted efforts, things need to be cleaned up and corrected there,” she said. “It makes sense to us that DPH would take this action. Clearly not enough is being done to protect workers.”

The news comes as coronavirus cases continued to spread across the state. California exceeded 7,000 deaths Saturday. Los Angeles County health officials on Saturday confirmed 2,916 new coronavirus cases and 57 more related deaths.

More than 2,000 people in the county are hospitalized with the virus, with 27% of those confirmed cases in intensive care and 18% on ventilators, officials said. It’s a significant increase from the 1,350 to 1,450 daily hospitalizations seen a month ago, according to the county Public Health Department.


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