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Opinion: Our letters page is evidence that L.A.'s COVID-19 messaging is failing

People dine outdoors in Pasadena on Nov. 29.
People dine outdoors along Colorado Boulevard on Nov. 29 in Pasadena, which has its own health department and its still allowing restaurant patio dining.
(Los Angeles Times)

“Letters aren’t a poll,” a long-ago predecessor of mine would say. She was right, as far as that statement went: A letters page is less a reflection of broad public opinion than a sampling of what a self-selected group of highly engaged readers think.

In my view, however, the page does mark shifts in the public’s mood. And right now, one such shift is happening at the worst possible time: Increasingly, readers are expressing skepticism or even outright hostility over local officials” actions to prevent a COVID-19 catastrophe.

As far as I can tell, this change in mood became clear last month after Gov. Gavin Newsom was seen, maskless, attending a dinner at the ritzy French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley with people outside his household. Perhaps then it was no coincidence when a short time later, just before Thanksgiving, many readers reacted angrily to Los Angeles County’s decision to suspend outdoor dining at restaurants as COVID-19 cases continued to set new records, threatening to overwhelm hospitals. In a sad replay of the French Laundry flap, other officials — Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and the mayors of San Jose and San Francisco — were similarly seen flouting the rules or common sense.

The displeasure reflects more than just a backlash against hypocritical politicians. Since this pandemic began, one of the most consistent complaints by our readers has been what they view as inconsistent, confusing guidelines: Why were wide-open beaches and hiking trails closed when comparatively crowded restaurant patios open? Why are we bending over backward to keep businesses running but not hearing much about public schools? And now, why is outdoor dining no longer acceptable after we’d been told not to have gatherings inside our homes?

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Our letter writers have generally been accepting of regulations that are clearly necessary to save lives. For example, just last week I wrote in this space about readers reacting with disgust to conspicuous flouting of mask rules. But now, when our health system appears on the brink of inundation and deaths climb inexorably to unacceptable levels, more readers than ever before are questioning the county’s and state’s messaging on coronavirus safety.

These are not easy words for me to write. My three children, who attend public schools, have been learning with the aid of screens since August. My mother, a longtime nurse at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights, has for nine months shunned close human contact except for the often very sick patients she examines. In fact, it has been my conversations with her — her frequent updates from the front line of exhaustion, illness and, yes, death — that have steeled my resolve and that of my family to closely follow the coronavirus guidelines.

But most people do not have such a vantage point. For them, the actions and messaging of local officials will have to suffice, and right now, those messages don’t appear to be fully getting through.

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To the editor: COVID-19 is raging out of control in Los Angeles’ working class and ethnic communities. In particular, the Hispanic community has been hard hit, with the number of cases per 100,000 people being more than twice as high as the next group.

What has been our elected officials’ response? Patronizing expressions of sympathy for a condition generally described as unavoidable because, after all, “those people” have to bring us our Amazon packages, and “they” live with lots of people in a household.

The ultimate symbol of fecklessness from elected officials was the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ recent vote, without much supporting evidence, to shut down outdoor dining. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl epitomized the out-of-touch attitude by saying, “We have done everything we can.”

From here, it looks like the supervisors and the rest of our politicians have done little to help our hardest-hit communities while they hide behind headline-grabbing, ineffective and economically devastating knee-jerk reactions like the outdoor dining ban.

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Barry Cassilly, Venice

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To the editor: For nearly four long years from 1941-45, our citizens sacrificed almost everything to defeat our enemies overseas. We did this with a shared commitment to saving the lives of our loved ones.

No one could really go anywhere because of gasoline rationing. Food supplies were also scarce. Salaries plummeted.

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But today, such sacrifice to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is too much to ask. They must have what they want, and they complain about it as we lose more than 3,000 people a day nationally.

The idea, as in World War II, is to keep people alive, to sacrifice. I guess that is asking too much.

Harry Schwarz, Agoura Hills

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To the editor: I find it highly unacceptable and politically charged that our county can decide what is considered constitutionally allowed during the lockdown.

How is allowing protests, which bring together thousands of people from all over Southern California, considered acceptable, but small gatherings with close friends and family are not?

Any protest with hundreds of people or even thousands is a super-spreader event by default. It’s OK to take away our basic fundamental freedoms, yet we allow destructive and irresponsible behavior. To me, any protest during a pandemic is destructive and irresponsible

Outside the pandemic, protest all you want. But while we are surging at an all-time high, allowing protests to continue while shutting much of our economy seems wrongheaded.

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Eric Richardson, Eastvale, Calif.

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To the editor: According to California health officials, much of the spread of COVID-19 can be attributed to in-person social gatherings (often at home and without masks). With Thanksgiving having recently occurred, thousands of people may soon become seriously ill, resulting in a shortage of properly staffed intensive care unit beds.

If life were fair, it would be possible to prioritize those beds for the most deserving — healthcare workers and persons who spent Thanksgiving at home and only with members of their own household. But life isn’t fair.

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So instead, I would urge those thinking about hosting or attending Hanukkah, Christmas or New Year’s get-togethers to first remember and reflect upon the fear, pain and suffering of those who followed all of the guidelines and caught COVID-19 anyway, as well as those incurring economic loss due to the business closures.

Maybe that, and the holiday spirit, will be enough to convince some to mend their selfish ways so we can quickly bend the curve again.

Paulette Lee, Encino

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To the editor: I think due to the recent restrictions, the governor, the mayor of Los Angeles, the City Council members and the county supervisors should not receive any salary, just like the restaurant, bar, gym and other small businesses owners and employees, until restrictions are lifted.

Since these members of society cannot make a living right now, it is unconscionable that our ruling class is spared the effects of its own edicts.

Dean Berkus, M.D., Encino

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To the editor: If you think the current virus surge is bad, wait for the post-Thanksgiving surge and then wait for the post-Christmas surge.

The data show most of us don’t get infected because we mask up, stay home and protect ourselves and others. But we pay the price for those who defy safety protocols and spread infections. They are the ones who cause the shutdowns.

The anger of the restaurant industry should be directed at those people, not at the elected officials and health officials who are trying to protect the public.

Larry Levine, Van Nuys

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To the editor: Thanks to columnist Steve Lopez for airing both sides of the restaurant closure issue. And thank you for quoting actual data from county Supervisor Kathryn Barger that only 3.1% of cases can be traced to restaurants.

My take is that the county now has had nine months to sort this out, and it can’t get beyond the two simple choices of either allowing or prohibiting outdoor dining. Could our leaders actually do their jobs and think outside the box to avoid the economic havoc this will have on restaurants and their employees?

For example, perhaps they could consider more concrete regulation and standards for outdoor dining. Every restaurant I go to has different protocols.

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Some restaurants have servers wear face shields in addition to masks, and some don’t. Some restaurants have salt and pepper shakers, and some instead have small paper packets. Some have paper menus, and some don’t. Some have partitions between the tables, and some don’t.

I realize that this is a complex problem — but complex problems are what county officials are elected and paid to solve. Maybe they should focus on making restaurants as safe as they can be and enforce compliance with new concrete standards so that they would become even less than 3.1% of the problem, rather than shutting down an industry and causing further economic insecurity.

Karen Pordum, Marina del Rey

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To the editor: I applaud Supervisor Kuehl’s decision to ban outdoor dining and then go dine outdoors herself.

The despicable sniveling riffraff of society who beg, whine and complain about having their businesses shut down and needing to feed their families must be taught a severe lesson.

Just who do the hoi polloi think they are?

David Mueller, Blacksburg, Va.

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To the editor: I agree that public servants who take part in creating the rules during this pandemic should absolutely err on the side of caution and lead by example — even exaggerated example.

When it is within the rules to go to restaurants, they should perhaps not go to restaurants. They should instead support restaurants in other ways — by ordering takeout, or by encouraging restaurateurs to invite subscribers who pay a certain amount per month for meals that are delivered or picked up.

However, I do not believe it is more egregious for these leaders to go to a restaurant than it is to flagrantly invite catastrophe on a consistent basis for months. Republicans insist that we keep the restaurants open, yet they criticize the Democratic politicians who go to them.

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Let’s not get distracted from the biggest problems, which have been indoor gatherings with many people in close proximity with no masks for long durations. Many people in this presidential administration have come down with COVID-19 as if it were a badge of honor.

It is fine to point out the hypocrisy of Democratic governors, mayors and county supervisors who who seemingly violate their own rules (and I agree; such behaviors are unwise). It is also, then, totally appropriate to point out the egregious misdeeds of this president and his cronies.

You either notice flaws or you don’t. If you do notice them, point them all out, and in proportion.

Andrea Kittelson, Los Angeles

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To the editor: We fine people for violating parking and more substantially for carpool regulations and maybe other minor misdeeds I don’t know about. Why can’t we fine people who don’t wear masks? This is not minor; it is increasingly a matter of life and death.

It could be enforced with a warning first, and then, if it continues, with steadily increasing penalties. If that hurts, then change your behavior.

I cannot understand why we need to be accepting of other people’s belief systems or emotional reactions when the science is so clear and the consequences so damaging or deadly. If people decide to be “free” and not wear masks, that means they must also accept the financial consequences of their freedom, as the rest of us are forced to accept the health consequences when they don’t mask up.

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Freedom is not free.

Lynn McLeod, Palos Verdes Estates

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To the editor: During this “unprecedented surge in virus cases,” two of my immediate family members have been called for jury duty. One is for Dec. 7, and the other for Dec. 14.

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I’ve always appeared for jury duty in the past, but these recent summons are both dangerous and stupid. Who runs this city?

Margaret Mcginnis, Westlake Villege

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To the editor: Why do governors feel they are most qualified to discuss COVID-19? Governors love being in the spotlight, but they are hardly qualified to be health experts and will dodge more nuanced questions.

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In a recent news conference, Newsom side-stepped questions about whether he has the scientific data to support his newly enacted restrictions. While political leaders continue to draw their salaries and benefits, thousands more will continue to suffer loss of income and personal freedom.

Dennis Price, Pine Grove, Calif.

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To the editor: What do you call Newsom’s new coronavirus rules? A French Laundry list.

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Denis Cagna, Los Angeles


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