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Around 1,000 LA Restaurants Fail Coronavirus Safety Rules Compliance Test

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Thousands of restaurants here in Los Angeles are back in business after the coronavirus shutdown, slinging tacos, serving truffle fries, simmering ramen, but also in many cases, violating social distancing and safety standards put in place by county public health officials. The LA County Department of Public Health sent staffers out to 2,000 restaurants over the weekend, and fully half of those restaurants were in violation of the rules.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer is the director of that department. She joins us now. Welcome.

BARBARA FERRER: Thanks so much for having me today.

CHANG: Well, I got to ask, what was your reaction to those results? I mean, 1,000 restaurants, half of the ones that were visited were out of compliance. What went through your mind?

FERRER: The truth is, this was our second weekend going out. And the first weekend, the results were much worse.

CHANG: OK, so this was an improvement.

FERRER: It was actually an improvement. Our protocols are actually directives. They're not recommendations here in LA County. And the restaurants must comply. We've asked for a lot of social distancing. We've also asked that anybody who's actually providing services at a table has to not only wear a face covering, but they also have to have a face shield because remember; they're going to be exposed to people who are eating and drinking and have no ability to keep a face covering on.

CHANG: Right.

FERRER: We've asked for lots of changes in the setup inside the restaurant. We've asked them to move a lot outside. So there was a lot that restaurants had to do to get ready. So I want to start by acknowledging that, you know, having half of them be in full compliance is really the good news.

CHANG: Well, what did you see in terms of violations? You just laid out the things that you had hoped to see, but what things did you see that weren't happening?

FERRER: There are few things that are really important that they have to happen and didn't. We saw very few in the restaurants where people weren't in compliance wearing those face shields. And again, remember that the cloth face covering you wear protects somebody else. The face shield protects the wearer. So it's really important to combine both. We also saw scant attention to the physical distancing. Some places, tables were right next to each other, which absolutely cannot happen.

CHANG: Right.

FERRER: And some places we actually had managers say, oh, we didn't realize we had to be in compliance with these. We thought they were recommendations.

CHANG: Well, given that these are not recommendations, that these are requirements, what happens to a restaurant that continues to break the rules? I mean, these restaurants that you flagged during this most recent visit, was it a fine, was it just a warning, or are you threatening to close some of them down?

FERRER: Yeah. So for - our first rounds of visits are really what we call technical assistance. We want to make sure you know what you need to do. We're here to be helpful. The second visit will really be for those that are not in compliance. They will get an order to come into compliance with a date by which they must comply. And then at the point that they're not in compliance if we return the third visit, they'll be issued a citation. And you're absolutely right. With flagrant violations, the restaurant will be closed.

CHANG: Let me ask you, you know, balancing safety with the reopening of the economy, that is just one part of a job that has gotten a lot bigger for you this year. But I want to ask, how are you doing personally? And I'm asking this because public health officials elsewhere in the country, even in neighboring Orange County, they have stepped down after receiving death threats. First of all, has that happened to you?

FERRER: You know, I don't want it to be a focus on sort of what's happening to me. I think so many of us have received death threats. You know, people unfortunately across the country are angry. And they - in some ways, they have a right to be angry. This virus has upended thousands and thousands and thousands of people's lives. It would be really important to remember that public health officials did not create this virus, that we are also, you know, part of what we hope is going to be good solutions to the challenges that we're facing. We come into work every single day prepared to do our very best, prepared to work with everyone, with all of our partners to try to continue to contain this pandemic and to try to continue to minimize the loss of life. That's what we're here for, that's our jobs, and that's our passion.

CHANG: Dr. Barbara Ferrer is the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Thank you very much for joining us today.

FERRER: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "FAREWELL SPACEMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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