Uncertainty and Cancellations Hit Downtown As Coronavirus Spreads *UPDATED*

Coronavirus in city, a prevention and protection concept.

UPDATE: Since this story was published, new figures are out. The Department of Public Health reports, as of noon on March 15, there are 69 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in Los Angeles County, including one death. Mayor Eric Garcetti has ordered bars, nightclubs, gyms, theaters and other gathering places to close.

As the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus escalates, its impact on civic life and private business in Downtown Los Angeles is becoming clear, with City government scaling back meetings and major events being canceled. The moves come after the first death in the county from the disease announced on March 11.

There was a growing sense of unease among Metropolitan Transportation Authority train riders at Union Station who spoke to Los Angeles Downtown News last Tuesday and Wednesday. Prior to a score of major city and state announcements that placed a sweeping list of restrictions on public gatherings and travel, most of the travelers said they were waiting to see what happened, and were unsure how the outbreak would affect their commutes. Still, with coronavirus infection rates climbing day-by-day, items such as hand sanitizer and facemasks were an infrequent sight, but remained on people’s minds.

“Do you have any [hand sanitizer]?” one rider, who asked not to be identified, asked just over half a dozen different people waiting on the platform at the Chinatown Station. A few people shook their heads. Only two people wore face masks, which the CDC had already noted should not be worn by individuals unless they are already ill, or have a compromised immune system.

Inside Union Station, people still hurried around, waiting for trains or moving to their destination. The convenience store in the station’s west hall was moderately busy, but was noticeably sold out of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, a constant scene occurring in stores across the nation. Outside the store, one family, including a toddler, all wore masks as they waited inside Union Station’s west hall.

These scenes were just a snapshot of life in Downtown Los Angeles as the COVID-19 illness spreads and local government updates its plans to respond.

As of press time on Friday, March 13, there are a total of 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19 illness in Los Angeles County, including one death, according to the County Department of Public Health. That death occurred last week, killing a visitor to Los Angeles County who had traveled heavily and had additional health concerns.

Los Angeles’ Unhoused

City and County leaders are currently rolling out new programs and responses to slow the spread of the disease. A major concern for local officials in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak is providing enough adequate treatment and hygiene to the roughly 60,000 homeless individuals inside Los Angeles County, who are at risk for infectious diseases due to limited sanitation options. A 2017 audit report found that Downtown’s 50-block Skid Row neighborhood had only nine public toilets available overnight, far short of the United Nations’ minimum for long-term refugee camps.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director, said last week that an outbreak among homeless encampments would make it difficult to contain the disease, given the difficulty of quarantining those on the streets.

Los Angeles City Councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell and Monica Rodriguez introduced a motion earlier this month to have the Bureau of Sanitation deploy handwashing stations at homeless encampments across the city. As of press time, 125 stations are in the process of being deployed around Los Angeles. City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose 14th District covers much of Downtown, filed a motion for more hygiene centers to be set up inside Skid Row.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the joint city-county agency overseeing services to the unhoused, is retraining its outreach teams to teach them of best practices for hygiene and to help inform homeless individuals, according to a statement from LAHSA Interim Executive Director Heidi Marston.

“In addition, we are training our outreach teams and our provider network on best practices for working with people who may have contracted Coronavirus and equipping them with additional sanitation equipment to keep themselves and people experiencing homelessness safe,” Marston’s statement continued.

Those outreach teams are also being given hand sanitizer to give to unhoused Angelenos.

In Downtown’s Skid Row, the Union Rescue Mission has set up handwashing stations inside and outside its facility. It is also using the shelter’s gymnasium as a quarantine area for any sick individuals.

Remote Classes and Cancellations

In precaution over health concerns, several major events in Downtown have been halted or postponed. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League have both suspended their seasons, while Major League Baseball is delaying the start of its season. Other major Downtown events, including the scheduled E3 convention in June, have been canceled.

The virus is also impacting Downtown’s local arts scene. The Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that all concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall have been halted through April and the Music Center has postponed all shows through the end of the month. Bunker Hill’s Colburn School is halting all performances and guest events until “at least April 13,” according to a press release issued by the school. UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance also canceled its programming at the Theatre at Ace Hotel through April 10.

The virus is also impacting local schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the country, announced on Friday, March 13, that it is closing schools indefinitely starting Monday, March 16.

In addition to performances, the Colburn School is canceling all in-person classes through at least April 12. The University of Southern California and the Southern California Institute of Architecture have both moved to online instruction.

Aside from being a nexus for three freeways, Downtown also is the central terminus for regional and Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail lines.

Metro formed an internal task force to plan the agency’s response if the virus appears on the Metro rail and bus system, according to Dave Sotero, a spokesperson for Metro, who stressed on March 6 that the virus has not yet shown up and there is no increased risk for passengers. Metro said it is setting up guides for riders for best practices on trains and buses.

“We clean our buses and trains on a daily basis,” Sotero told Los Angeles Downtown News earlier this month. “We will be reviewing our cleaning protocols to ensure they’re adequate. We will continue to work to ensure that our system remains as safe and clean as possible.”

Two shifts of cleaning crews are operating daily in high-traffic transit hubs such as Union Station and the Seventh Street/Metro Center station. Union Station is remaining in operation, but halting its public gatherings and art programs. On rides to and from the Chinatown station, riders were quiet, using hand sanitizer after getting off the train in some cases.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has upped its cleaning schedule for DASH and Commuter Express buses to daily; it previously held cleanings every other day. It is also directing franchised taxi companies to also do daily cleanings.

Local Downtown hospitals California Hospital Medical Center in South Park and Good Samaritan Hospital in City West, have issued statements saying that they are following County and CDC guidelines and are prepared to treat anyone infected.

The cancellations and new responses come after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a new list of state guidelines on March 11, urging that events with 250 or more people be pushed back or outright canceled through the end of the month. the City of Los Angeles is urging events of 250 or more people to be canceled or postponed. All public City events with 50 or more people, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti. In a public statement, Garcetti also announced limits on visitors to public buildings such as Los Angeles City Hall, parks, City museums and community centers to no more than 50 people at a time. Los Angeles City Hall will be closed to the public save for access to public City Council meetings. The mayor also announced that hygiene stations would be set up around City-owned buildings.

“I know this is an anxious time for a lot of people, but Angelenos should stay focused on preparation and protection — not panic,” Garcetti said on Thursday, March 12. “We will continue doing everything we can to help guide people through this situation, and working closely with our local, state, and federal partners to keep our communities safe, aware, and informed.”

It’s the latest step in local response to the outbreak. On March 4, the county and city declared a public health emergency. A day later the state of California issued a similar declaration.

As of press time, there are 198 confirmed cases in California, and four deaths. There are approximately 1,250 cases nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Roughly 132,700 people have contracted the illness worldwide.

The disease was first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and has since spread across the planet, with multiple countries including Norway and Italy going into full country-wide lockdown. COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus, the same viral family that also produced the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. COVID-19 causes respiratory illness, with flu-like symptoms with the worst cases reporting pneumonia-like symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds as the best prevention method, and urges people not to touch their faces.

The County Department of Public Health said that it is following Newsom’s guidances and said that strategies of “self distancing” can be effective in delaying the spread of diseases and reducing the rates of illness, according to Ferrer.

“Continued evidence of community transmission in LA County is growing, it is important we all, including businesses and organizations, do our part to slow the spread,” Ferrer said in a statement.

The Department of Public Health is urging those who are sick to stay home, except to get medical care.

For more information on the state of California’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, our story "Local, State Officials Brace for Coronavirus."

Information on the virus and prevention are at http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/Coronavirus.

nslayton@timespublications.com.