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Editorial: Essential workers need more essential protection from COVID

Chaplain Kevin Deegan, right, and nurse Cristina Marco with patient Domingo Benitez at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center
Chaplain Kevin Deegan, right, and nurse Cristina Marco attend to COVID-19 patient Domingo Benitez, 70, at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center on Dec. 29 in Mission Hills.
(Los Angeles Times)

California has seemingly gone back to square one on COVID-19, with infection rates and hospitalizations evoking bad memories of the frightening initial wave last year. Things in Los Angeles County are so dire that ambulances are being told not to bring in patients with very little chance of survival. Oxygen and other resources have to be reserved for those who are more likely to make it. Every time the county sets a new record for cases, it seems to waste little time beating it.

Yet in one crucial respect, things are different from last spring, when state and local officials first put most of California into lockdown. This time the shutdown orders are less sweeping, with more businesses remaining at least partly open.

It perhaps isn’t surprising, then, that an increasing number of outbreaks are being seen at retail outlets such as Costco, Target and other big-name companies. In California, shopping is an essential business; adequately protecting the people who make it possible is another matter.

The working conditions faced by these employees are less extreme than the shoulder-to-shoulder production lines at the meatpacking plants that were COVID-19 hot spots back at the beginning of the pandemic. The recent outbreaks have been at basic stores, including eight Home Depots. Ten Targets have been hit, involving 217 cases.

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That’s not to say that these employers aren’t taking measures to ensure the safety of their employees. It’s simply not possible to get the infection rate to zero. And it’s legitimate to worry whether businesses can survive the blow of another lockdown.

But clearly, current measures are inadequate. And as problematic as things are right now, they’re expected to worsen in coming weeks. COVID-19 cases from people who ignored stay-at-home orders for New Year’s Eve and the following weekend will begin showing themselves over the next couple of weeks. At the same time, people have lockdown fatigue and may figure that if they haven’t gotten sick so far, they’re not at risk.

The increase in employee infections might stem from workers and workplaces that have grown more casual about safety protocols. Or there might be a new, more transmissible variant of the virus that renders normal measures less effective.

Whatever the cause, the state and Los Angeles County should be stepping up inspections of workplaces to help employers keep their workers safe, pointing out lapses in mask wearing, distancing and other preventive measures that might be feeding the increase in employee cases. More frequent testing is probably needed.

(Some smaller employers are trying to move the ball in the other direction. Represented by two business groups, they have filed suit against the state over requirements for employers to provide free protective equipment and COVID-19 testing for employees, as well as paid time off if they are sick or require quarantining. Many large companies already offer this, and the lawsuit claims that most smaller ones do as well. In that case, it should be possible for all of them to provide this — and if they need help with the expenses, the state should provide that.)

In the meantime, health officials should review their decisions on what counts as an essential service or activity and where the greater dangers lie for employees and the public. The entertainment industry is considered an essential service these days, and that’s where some of the worker outbreaks have been occurring. So are malls. With hospitals already at capacity, do movie sets and malls really need to stay open for people to get the essentials of living?

This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a long-term issue. The dangerous increase in cases, caused largely by gatherings over the holidays, should ease somewhat within weeks if people act responsibly. It would certainly help if outrageous anti-maskers — like the ones who stormed a Ralphs grocery store and the Westfield Century City Mall on Sunday, confronting employees and shoppers — encountered swift and meaningful enforcement.

The hospitals can’t take it anymore. Further inspections and protections at essential workplaces are needed — as are some additional restrictions on business, perhaps very short-term ones — to get people safely to their turn at a vaccine.


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