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In Orange County, heart of the mask resistance, a doctor tries to restore faith in science

Many Orange County beachgoers are choosing not to wear masks despite the pleas of medical experts.
In Laguna Beach, signs are posted that read “You must wear a face covering. It’s the law,” but not everyone is doing it.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The day was fading fast in Laguna Beach, where people often gather at the water’s edge to celebrate gauzy, pink-toned sunsets.

At Heisler Park, my wife and I found a nice perch to take it all in, and watched as a nearby gathering of people grew in numbers, with lawn chairs neatly arranged and a food buffet table set up.

“This is my sister,” one man said, introducing a late arrival to the others in the group.

There were elbow bumps and cordial greetings, and the sister took a seat inches from another person. Soon, about 10 or 12 people had gathered. It was a lovely scene, friends and family enjoying each other’s company on a pleasant eve to take in the wonders of the stunning California coast.

Except that a highly contagious and deadly virus is stalking us, and these people weren’t wearing masks or distancing, neither of which would have been much of a sacrifice. Unless they all live together, which didn’t appear to be the case, they ran the risk that someone in the group might be sick and pass the bug on to others, and to others, and to ...

A lifeguard wearing a face covering heads up the steps in Heisler Park in Laguna Beach.
A lifeguard wearing a face covering heads up the steps at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

I think this virus eats brain tissue. From California all the way to D.C., people have lost their minds.

It should surprise nobody that on Tuesday, Orange County had its highest number of COVID-19 deaths — 15 — in more than a month. Meanwhile, 203 of the 640 people hospitalized in the county were in intensive care units, and the death toll had climbed to 253.

As the start of the school year draws closer, a new portal on the Orange County Health Care Agency’s coronavirus website gets into granular detail on COVID-19’s impact on children, allowing deep dives not broken out for any other age group: cases by city, zip code, and school district, further divided into age subgroups.

Given that Orange County — particularly Huntington Beach — has been at the center of the resistance to sensible precautions, we thought about opting out of our quickie trip to Laguna. But we had a deadline to use or lose a lodging credit from a canceled trip last year, and I was curious what we’d find.

A mixed bag, it turns out. My wife, daughter and I estimated that roughly half the people who were out and about in town or on beaches were either wearing masks or keeping a safe distance from one another, or both. But the other half carried on as if there was no pandemic, even though signs all around downtown Laguna clearly state, “You Must Wear a Face Covering. It’s the Law.”

The Sanchez family, of Los Angeles, wear their masks while visiting Laguna Beach on Friday.
The Sanchez family, of Los Angeles, wear their masks while visiting Laguna Beach on Friday.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

One day we hiked the trails at Crystal Cove State Park, and that was 50-50, too. There may well be a reduced risk of spreading the virus outdoors, but is there any good reason that people without face coverings, sweaty and panting, need to brush within a couple of feet of others on the trail?

Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen told me he thinks a clear majority of Laguna Beach residents and merchants have been playing it safe. As for residents and visitors who aren’t, the city just reassigned trolley drivers to cover the city on foot and hand out masks to those who don’t have them.

Last weekend, Whalen said, they approached 7,000 people and distributed 2,400 masks. Most people were cordial, but some just walked away, he said. The city’s policy is to encourage good behavior rather than write citations for bad behavior.

“Over the last few weeks, the level of compliance has gone up,” Whalen said. “It’s nowhere near where it needs to be, but it has gone up.”

If there’s an increase in mask wearing, it might have something to do with the daily educational dispatches from Laguna Beach resident Eric Alcouloumre. He’s an emergency room physician at Hoag Hospital Newport Beach, and he was the subject of a nice write-up in the Laguna Beach Independent by Barbara McMurray.

In the story, Alcouloumre took on the Orange County Board of Supervisors for driving the chief public health officer out of her job, the county sheriff for not enforcing mask requirements, and the county Board of Education, which recommended reopening schools without requiring masks or distancing.

Laguna Beach resident Dr. Eric Alcouloumre is an emergency room physician at Hoag Hospital Newport Beach.
(Courtesy of Eric Alcouloumre)

And the doctor wasn’t done with his scalpel.

“Our national political leadership has undermined its experts, leaving us unsure of what we should be doing” and wiping out “all the gains we made with our initial efforts.”

When I rang up Alcouloumre, who has practiced emergency medicine for 35 years, he told me he hadn’t intended to take up blogging. But he has posted on his Facebook page more than 100 times in four months, trying to set the record straight on what is known about the virus and how to slow its spread. He said he got started because his wife — attorney Annee Della Donna — saw people forwarding misinformation and conspiracy theories on social media and told him he had to do something.

A set of guidelines adopted by the O.C. Board of Education advising schools reopen without masks and social distancing has ties to an anti-union, pro-charter school group opening an Orange County campus in August.

“I think it’s all pretty easy and there isn’t a lot of depth to what I’ve been telling people,” said the doctor, who has seen a lot of COVID-19 patients in the ER. “We need to wash our hands, socially distance and wear a mask.”

Follow those simple instructions, Alcouloumre said — noting that he speaks for himself, not Hoag Hospital — and we’ll be able to flatten the curve and reopen businesses faster.

“I think of the lockdown in April, when we had a massive peak and everybody stepped up and did what they were supposed to do. I think about how that flattened the curve … and where we really blew it was opening a few weeks earlier than experts were telling us to do,” Alcouloumre told me.

“You had demonstrations in Huntington Beach, the mask protests, and I don’t know if government felt pressure to relax. But that’s where things started going down the toilet for us. People were getting together and having parties and bars reopened, and it just gave the virus another opportunity to spread like crazy.”

Laguna Beach self-appointed greeter Michael Minutoli wears a mask while promoting the town.
Laguna Beach self-appointed greeter Michael Minutoli wears a mask while promoting the town.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In the last week, Acouloumre has been extra busy both in the ER and at his keypad, keeping an eye on the doings in Washington, which is kind of like watching a mockumentary about a bungling dictatorial regime in a time of crisis.

“Yeah, this circus makes my head spin,” Alcouloumre wrote, taking on the quack-pot doctors embraced by the stable genius in the White House, including one who specializes in alien DNA and demon seed, and believes hydroxychloroquine is a COVID-19 cure despite evidence that it often is neither effective nor safe.

“I’ve spent way too much time talking about these yahoos today,” Alcouloumre quipped. “The president may respect them, but I do not. They are an embarrassment to the medical profession, are dangerous, and in my humble opinion are behaving unethically and contributing to the suffering and death we are facing from COVID.”

Some hair salons and barbershops have taken their operation outside in order to get back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.

The next day, Alcouloumre wrote about Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who resisted face coverings in public and reportedly berated staff for wearing masks, then tested positive for COVID-19 himself. Gohmert said he thinks he got the virus from bowing to pressure and wearing a mask. I wouldn’t be surprised if the congressman now tries to inject some Lysol under the skin to, you know, kill the germs.

The city of Laguna Beach has posted  signs that read "You must wear a face covering. It's the law"
The city of Laguna Beach has posted signs that read, “You must wear a face covering. It’s the law,” but not everyone is on board.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“This is the kind of leadership that is literally killing us,” wrote Alcouloumre. “You can’t make this stuff up. If you wonder why we are not out of this mess yet, this is another great example.”

And yet there may be hope, judging by the thousands of reactions to Alcouloumre’s posts.

“I’d say they’re running about 90% to 95% positive,” said the doctor.

Evidence that straight talk and common sense are our best hope.

Steve Lopez is a columnist with the Los Angeles Times. He can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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