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Coronavirus Today: The fear of returning to work

Good evening. I’m Diya Chacko, and it’s Thursday, July 23. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

If we were winning the battle against the coronavirus, the moment we could all return to our workplaces would be one for many of us to celebrate.

Instead, with cases and hospitalizations still rising and California’s death toll now past 8,000, it’s a nightmare scenario for thousands of employees being called back to their physical workplaces. If furloughed workers don’t return, they face losing unemployment benefits. “It’s a terrible situation,” said the director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program. “People have to choose between a paycheck and their health — not only their own health, but the health of their family and their community.”

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Many of those workers, especially those represented by labor unions, are resisting going back. They cite the failure of employers over the last four months to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in some workplaces deemed essential, such as hospitals, nursing homes and warehouses, where the disease spread like wildfire because of inadequate safety measures.

Indeed, experts say Californians’ impatience to reopen and resume life as normal is to blame for the situation we’re in, now that we’ve earned the dubious distinction of being the state with the most confirmed cases. When California began to relax its shelter-in-place order, we should have been “tip-toeing out on the ice,” as one UC Berkeley biostatistician put it. “What we did instead was all run out on the ice, some not too cautiously. And a lot of people fell through the ice.”

A new study backs up what we already know: Avoiding nonessential outings and maintaining social distancing has a measurable impact on the rate of coronavirus transmission. In their examination of 211 counties where social distancing behavior varied widely between late February and late April, the researchers saw a correlation between the number of nonessential outings and the number of people a single person could infect.

It’s a reminder, said a public health expert who wasn’t involved in the research, that Americans have the power to win against COVID-19 based on the decisions we make.

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By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 6 p.m. PDT Thursday:

Nearly 428,200 California cases and at least 8,169 deaths as of 4:30 p.m. PDT Thursday, July 23.
(Compiled by L.A. Times Graphics)

Track the latest numbers and how they break down in California with our graphics.

See the current status of California’s reopening, county by county, with our tracker.

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Across California

With vast numbers of Californians out of work, state officials expected Medicaid enrollment to skyrocket and used that projection to allocate funds to Medi-Cal accordingly. But enrollment hasn’t budged, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health Care Services. “It’s a mystery,” said the executive director of Health Access California, an advocacy group for health consumers. We have lots of plausible explanations, but they don’t seem to add up.”

The Legislature will let some members at higher risk for COVID-19 vote remotely on pending bills when it reconvenes next week in Sacramento, following a two-week break after two lawmakers and several staffers tested positive. The idea, which relies on votes by proxy, has gotten some pushback over potential transparency issues — but Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) said the process would have strict rules and that “extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.”

In L.A. County, some employees of Supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger say they have been required to work in unsafe office conditions and had their pleas to work from home ignored. The complaints surfaced in an anonymous letter, circulated among county executives and provided to The Times, in which staffers said both supervisors “feel entitled to require staff to report back to their offices although their work can be performed remotely.” Solis and Barger say their policies on teleworking have varied over time because of technology issues and the need to serve their districts.

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The Dodgers officially began their 60-game regular season Thursday, playing the San Francisco Giants. Just before the start of the game, Major League Baseball team owners and the players’ union agreed on the expansion of the postseason from 10 teams to 16. The move is something of a test run amid requests from television networks for more postseason games, and it means more than half the teams in the major leagues will qualify for the playoffs this year.

San Diego is suffering the loss of what would have been the 51st edition of the city’s Comic-Con. Since 1970, San Diego each year has hosted throngs of hardcore fans of everything comics, sci-fi and fantasy, in what has become one of the region’s single most significant economic boons. Now both the geeks and the businesses that would have served them are in mourning. “It’s not only us,” said a “Deadpool” cosplayer who came to the convention center anyway. “It’s all of those restaurants, all of those hotels. Let’s call it fair, in the sense that it affects everybody.”

This year’s convention is taking place virtually, with streamed panels and an online exhibition floor with vendors. Here’s a video with everything you need to know about how to participate at home.

Resources

— For general safety, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (here’s a super-fun how-to video). Stop touching your face, and keep your phone clean. Practice social distancing, maintaining a six-foot radius of personal space in public. And wear a mask if you leave home. Here’s how to do it right.
— Watch for symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. If you’re worried you might be infected, call your doctor or urgent care clinic before going there.
— Need a COVID-19 test? Here’s how to receive a free test if you’re in L.A. County. And here’s a map of testing sites across California.
— Here’s how to care for someone with COVID-19, from monitoring their symptoms to preventing the virus’ spread.
— If your job has been affected by the pandemic, here’s how to file for unemployment.
— Here are some free resources for restaurant workers and entertainment industry professionals having trouble making ends meet.
— Advice for helping kids navigate pandemic life includes being honest about uncertainties, acknowledging their feelings and sticking to a routine. Here’s guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
— In need of mental health services? Here are resources for coping during the crisis from the CDC and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. L.A. County residents can also call (800) 854-7771 or text “LA” to 741741.
Thinking about going out? Here’s how you can assess your risk.

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Around the nation and the world

Speaking of conventions, President Trump on Thursday abruptly canceled plans for a speech to an arena next month in Jacksonville, Fla., as part of the Republican National Convention, reversing his own insistence on a “big, crowded” event. Instead, most of the festivities will move online, and the party will likely hold official business in North Carolina with a skeletal group of attendees. Florida is one of the country’s current hot spots for the coronavirus.

Federal officials are beginning to track down and prosecute fraud associated with the Paycheck Protection Program. More than a dozen criminal cases have been filed in 11 states against defendants accused of lying on applications, falsifying records and misappropriating money. But most involve relatively small businesses or individuals, and legal experts say the real test will be how aggressively the feds pursue larger, publicly traded companies that weren’t the intended recipients of PPP loan money.

Thousands of crisis nurses and other medical staff who were sent to New York to battle the coronavirus earlier in the pandemic are now being redeployed to Texas. That state has seen record-breaking numbers of cases and deaths, and hospitals are overflowing with patients and short on staff. “You learn to adapt quick,” said a contract nurse now working in south Texas. “It’s something I’m learning with each deployment.”

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: If I don’t feel safe meeting friends and family right now, what should I do? Audience engagement editor Jessica Roy has some suggestions on politely responding to invitations to parties and other gatherings.

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To be clear, large nonessential gatherings are still restricted in most of California; you can check your county’s rules with the Times’ reopening tracker. Still, some people are beginning to plan parties, weddings and more informal gatherings with family and friends.

Assuming you’re close with the people who are inviting you to these events, it can feel tricky to decline without seeming judgmental about the risks of hosting a gathering in the middle of a pandemic. It’s more about how you say no, experts say. Tone matters.

Their advice is to smile when you make the call and keep it simple: “Thank you for the invitation; I’m so sorry, but I can’t make it.” Even if it’s something you’ve already RSVP’d to, like a wedding, you can still go back to the host and decline. It isn’t rude to change your mind, as long as you give them as early a heads-up as possible.

And if you’re thinking you might attend a gathering — everyone’s personal risk assessment is different right now — it’s also not rude to ask what safety measures are being taken. Will the host be asking people to wear masks? Will seats be placed at least six feet away from each other?

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If anyone mocks or belittles you for taking basic health precautions, either in declining invitations or in asking about safety, don’t engage with them or try to change their minds. “No” is a complete sentence. “Thank you, but no” is as well.

Got a question? Our reporters covering the coronavirus outbreak want to hear from you. Email us your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. You can find more answers in our Frequently Asked Questions roundup and on our coronavirus roundup page.

For the most up-to-date coronavirus coverage from The Times, visit our homepage and our Health section, listen to our “Coronavirus in California” podcast and follow us on Twitter and on Instagram.


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