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County facing big price tag recovering from pandemic

LOS ANGELES — Returning to some form of economic normalcy may come with a big price tag for Los Angeles County, as leaders representing hospitals, the arts, nonprofits, labor and faith-based organizations looked to the Board of Supervisors June 16 to help source personal protective gear, expand COVID-19 testing and implement a host of other safety measures.

The number of coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County crossed the 75,000 mark, while another 33 deaths pushed the countywide death toll to 2,960.

Members of the Los Angeles County Economic Resiliency Task Force asked the board to consider opening COVID-19 testing sites at churches and in workplaces and providing both coordination and subsidies for buying masks and other safety equipment as the region moves into the next phase of reopening.

Detailed reports from each sector included a wide range of recommendations and some warnings, as task force members called for the county to reimagine what might be accomplished post-pandemic.

Each offered help in meeting the county’s goals, but outlined programs that would require additional county resources at a time when the county itself is under financial pressure severe enough to force a drawdown on reserves and limits on matching retirement funds.

Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, founder of the Ward Economic Development Corp., said faith-based organizations were ready to do their part by offering up places of worship as trusted sites for COVID-19 testing, especially in under-served communities.

Dupont-Walker also asked for some specific guidance from public health experts.

“How do we safely carry out the rituals, for example baptisms and marriages?” Dupont-Walker asked. “Our clergy believe that it is so important for them to continue the service of visiting the sick and the dying and would like to find ways to do that and respect the health guidelines.”

Rob Nothoff, policy director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, told the task force that is was imperative that even asymptomatic workers be tested before going back on the job. The labor report called for on-site testing, worker-led safety committees and changes to worker classifications under AB 5 to ensure sick leave.

“As we witnessed, when workers are not protected in the workplace, particularly in essential businesses, the workplace can quickly transform into a petri dish where the virus can spread among the workers, the public and their family members,” Nothoff said.  

Labor leaders also recommended that the county either procure personal protective equipment for everyone and distribute it at cost or certify vendors and impose a maximum sales price.

Ron Herrera, president of the LA Fed, suggested prioritizing the fast-food industry as a starting point for implementing new health and safety measures.

Leaders from both the labor and nonprofit sectors urged the board to move forward quickly with “shovel-ready” projects in the construction and transportation fields as a way to get Angelenos back to work.

Everyone stressed the tremendous toll the health crisis and related stay-at-home orders have taken, offering alarming statistics about the numbers of arts organizations, nonprofits and doctors’ private practices that may not survive.

The report on the nonprofit sector, presented by Regina Birdsell, president and CEO of the Southern California Center for Nonprofit Management, found that some agencies had seen need increase fourfold, while 20% of those polled planned to close their doors permanently.

Birdsell asked the county to subsidize safety equipment.

“We recommend that the county provide reopening kits: floor decals, sneeze guards, [personal protective equipment] — ideally leveraging savings through group purchasing — and provide subsidies for the necessary safety equipment.”

Birdsell also urged the board to consider emergency aid to vulnerable organizations, including child care centers. Other recommendations included finding ways to create a more nimble contracting system for nonprofits and updating reimbursement rates for services.

“Given the size and the challenges ahead, we think it is time to reimagine what is possible,” she said.

The arts have also been hit hard, said Tim Dang, a faculty member at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and member of the county’s Arts Commission.

Dang told the board the sector represents $200 billion in annual economic output and one in five jobs countywide.

“As of May 22, 34% of L.A. County nonprofit arts organizations dipped into their financial reserves, 29% laid off or furloughed staff, 38% worried about their ability to make payroll and only about half are confident their organization will survive,” Dang said.

Among other recommendations, Dang called on the board to fully fund county arts grants this year and expand an arts internship program, as well as approving a long-discussed 1% fee on real estate development to fund arts programs.

Yet even as the group stressed the need to get everyone back to work, speakers also offered warnings about a second surge of COVID-19 cases.

“We’re going to continue to see at least for the next 12-18 months, as public health experts tell us, a resurgence of this infection,” said Dr. Hector Flores, medical director of the Center for Hispanic Health at Adventist Health White Memorial.

Hospitals are the biggest employers in the county’s $100 billion health care and bioscience industry, Flores said. The sector has taken a roughly $15 billion hit so far this year as non-critical surgeries have been postponed due to the risk of COVID-19.

He urged the board to work with the state to reopen St. Vincent’s Medical Center and the Long Beach Community Hospital as surge hospitals so that other hospitals can serve surgery patients without holding aside too much space for COVID-19 patients.

Flores also highlighted a continued lack of sufficient testing and said priority should be given to congregate care settings like nursing homes.

 He predicted a dire need for more mental health services, based on “post-traumatic stress disorders emerging because of the pandemic itself.”

In response to questions from the board, Kevin McGowan, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, said he would report back on the issue of protective personal equipment at a later meeting.

Supervisor Janice Hahn seemed open to the idea of subsidizing the cost, specifically mentioning faith-based organizations.

“Are we using our federal dollars, our CARES Act money specifically to help the faith-based organizations who do need protective equipment, do need much more cleaning supplies, disinfectant as they begin to re-welcome parishioners back into the churches and synagogues?” Hahn asked.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county should focus on hard-hit industries that employ many low-income residents and urged imaginative thinking to “bend the bureaucracy toward equity.”

Supervisor Hilda Solis said the reports offered some new ideas and new challenges. She agreed with many of the recommendations from the labor group and hoped they could work together with business interests toward common goals.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger emphasized child care as an “overarching” concern, and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl asked Flores to consider protections for parents unable to return to work if schools fail to reopen.

Barger also said she expected the county to not only expand testing, but find a way to make certain that insurance companies were covering testing for asymptomatic individuals in order to get laborers back to work safely.

As chair of the task force, Barger closed by thanking the other members for providing a road map to reopening.

“How fortunate we are in L.A. County to have such an incredible brain trust,” Barger said.

The full reports, including those presented by other sectors two weeks ago, are available at https://covid19.lacounty.gov/economic-resiliency-task-force/. The task force’s next meeting is scheduled for June 30.

Wave Wire Services