With at least 30 million out of work in this country and half a billion facing poverty or starvation worldwide, indefinite lockdowns are no longer an option
I’ve refrained from personal essays on the all aspect report in favor of researched opinion pieces. Writing in the first person breaks a sort of journalistic fourth wall and can detract from the story and analysis. Personal opinions evoke more emotional responses than dispassionate analysis and can strain the trust between journalist and reader.
I’m making an exception today because this piece addresses an issue about which none of us truly can be impartial. I’ve bolstered it with as much factual support as could be mustered but it still relies on personal experience, reasonable deductions, and, frankly, instinct. So first person it is.
I believe it is time to reopen the U.S. economy. Not one state a time, not in the herky-jerky, make-it-up-as-we-go-along manner we’ve responded to the virus so far. We need a rational, reasonable, and efficient way to get as many institutions and businesses reopened, and as many people back to work, as quickly and safely as possible. In doing so we must balance the urgent, immediate threat of the novel coronavirus against the grinding, long-term dangers of continued economic contraction and social isolation.
I make this argument well aware of the dangers: I myself am in a somewhat higher risk group for coronavirus. I have an irregular heart beat and have had a minor stroke. These things seem to run in my family – both my mother and my maternal grandfather had several strokes over the course of their lives and my paternal grandfather died of heart disease in his early 40s. I also live in an apartment building in a dense area, Santa Monica, and my job requires me to interact with people regularly, often in less than ideal conditions in terms of personal safety and contact.
I would be well-advised to stay home as long as possible. Yet as we enter the third month of official lockdown/shelter-in-place/quarantine/self-isolation (it says something that the folks in charge can’t agree on what to call it) I’m willing to risk my health and my life if it means reopening California and United States and getting millions of people back to work. I believe that the well-being, prosperity, and long-term happiness of my fellow citizens obligate me to take the (still relatively small) risk.
All who are reasonably able to do so must consider taking that same risk, because we’ve reached a turning point in the battle against the virus: There have been casualties and there will be more. But we cannot lock ourselves away from danger forever, especially when the costs grow more unbearable by the day. The U.S. food supply is showing signs of stress, with the federal government assisting the slaughterof millions of cattle, pigs, and chickens while tons of produce rot in California fields. None of that plenty will make it to Americans’ tables, much less into the global food supply. Worldwide as many as half a billion people are at risk of slipping back into poverty as a result of the economic shutdown. That means millions more premature deaths, countless millions of destroyed lives. The most vulnerable will suffer the worst. No single life is worth that kind of collective harm.
Obviously I don’t want to get sick and I’d certainly rather not kick the bucket at age 44. But one Christopher LeGras is not worth millions of broke and bankrupt families, countless millions of broken futures and shattered dreams, nor the early deaths and suicides that are their inevitable fellow travelers. I can be selfish but I’m not a lunatic.
At the same time I’m going to keep living my life and doing my job, and I hope all who are capable do the same. I’m going to keep investigating, writing about, and exposing the historic corruption and fraud that threaten the futures of my beloved Los Angeles and California. Investigative journalism has a particular and essential role in times like this, when it’s easy for bad people to do bad things under cover of emergency and the fog of conflict. Doing that job requires going out and interacting with the world because that’s where the information lives.
I’m not looking backward: Whether or not the extended lockdown was necessary will be a matter of debate for decades to come. Many a Ph.D. dissertation will be written and many an academic career made over that question. I believe that even if it was overbroad it initially was effective. The predicted mass casualties and deaths of the more, shall we say, impassioned prognosticators didn’t come to pass, and thank God for that.
The problem is that the lockdown treatment for coronavirus is not unlike treating aggressive cancer with chemotherapy: You can’t keep the patient on it forever. It’s cliché but the cure eventually becomes worse than the disease. We’ve reached that point.
Now is the time for the willing to return to their lives. There’s no logic in keeping the Home Depot open while sending the Sheriff to shut down the local hardware store. It makes no sense to shut down the churches and synagogues while leaving open the liquor stores and pot shops. To close parks to the public while allowing vagrants to gather.
Also, lifting restrictions will allow authorities to focus the efforts more efficiently on known hot zones like retirement communities, areas of particularly high density, and of course homeless populations. Getting Americans back to work also will free up financial resources to support those cohorts. Rather than sending 80 million stimulus checks government could provide long-term support for those most vulnerable to the virus.
An anonymous source has told me that the Army is shutting down the emergency field hospital it set up in the Los Angeles Convention Center last month. If true this is more good news – it means L.A. has reached a point where existing capacity can handle further expected cases. The USNS Mercy remains docked in Long Beach to handle any unexpected surge (UPDATE: The Mercy departed on May 15, having treated a mere 77 patients).
Likewise, according to military.com field hospitals worldwide are either empty, emptying, or well below expected capacity and likewise are starting to shut down while retaining contingency capabilities. This is more good news.
In contrast, with each passing day the harm of the economic shutdown increases. Calls to suicide and other mental health hotlines have spiked nationwide; a source in Wisconsin told me that calls to a hotline in her area are up more than 300% over this time last year. Reports of domestic violence are up, likely a small percentage of the true increase. Millions of students, in particular those with special needs, risk slipping behind academically, some of them permanently. And the overall mental health impacts of long term sheltering in place aren’t yet even dimly understood. The United Nations has warned, “This is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong.”
Like the virus itself the economic damage risks expanding exponentially. Supply chains cannot be rebuilt as quickly as they can be shut down. Farmers are slaughtering stock in increasing numbers, increasing the time it will take to recover. You can’t grow a sow overnight. With each passing day more small businesses pass the point of no return; the restaurant industry may well never recover.
These catastrophic realities, the devastating impacts on countless millions, simply render any single life insignificant.
In addition to that stroke a the age of 42 I nearly bought it when I was 19. I was at Mt. Everest base camp and came down with severe altitude sickness and pulmonary edema. I’m here today because of dumb luck: A team of doctors from UC San Francisco happened to be on the mountain at the same time testing out two still somewhat novel cures. The one they tried on me, a portable hyperbaric chamber called a Gamow bag, worked. And here I be. Despite that scare, in the years since I’ve attempted and summited dozens of peaks, including solo efforts on Mt. Rainier, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Baker, and others. Why? Because it’s worth the risk.
Of 10,000 climbers who attempt Mt. Rainier annually about 5,000 achieve the summit, and an average of five are killed. That works out to a death rate of 50 per 100,000, higher than the coronavirus death rate in than all but four states (three of which are the tri-state area that has been disproportionately hard-hit). In the mountain’s deadliest year, 1981, 11 perished, for a death rate of 110 per 100,000, higher than the coronavirus rate for all but New York state.
In other words, 10,000 people are willing to risk worse odds – potentially far worse – than those of dying from coronavirus for a 50-50 chance to experience the thrill of summiting one of the country’s great mountains. I’d wager those kinds of folks are champing at the bit to get back to work, school, and their lives. It is time we let them.
Each and every one of us has to decide for themselves the level of risk we’re willing to take. If you want to stay inside, stay inside. For now. But it’s no longer acceptable for our elected officials – who work for us, by the way, and not the other way around, never forget that – to continue to lockdown our economy and increasingly, troublingly, infringe on our most fundamental freedoms.
It’s time for us to decide our own level of risk. Reopen California. Reopen America.
Inconsistent, contradictory orders and actions reveal a deeper and more troubling agenda, particularly in big cities
In the game of poker, it’s called a tell. In the heat of the moment, when they’re all in and holding a weak hand even the best players often reveal their bluff. A tell can be a quick sideways glance, an almost imperceptible change in their breathing, a change in the cadence of their speech. There are tells in business negotiations and legal proceedings as well: In a turn of phrase or an unconscious gesture even the most seasoned, Sphinx-like professionals can betray a crucial weakness or strength.
The coronavirus crisis is proving that much of America’s political class, particularly the progressives who occupy elected office in our larger metro ares, wouldn’t last very long in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Their tells reveal their that their orders and policies are about politics, not public health. That truth becomes more evident with each passing day, each irrational order, each insufferable press conference.
In California the political class’s tells have been obvious from the earliest days of the pandemic. As officials like Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti effectively locked 40 million law-abiding citizens in their homes they allowed the state’s homeless population – officially 130,000 but in reality many times that – to continue their lives unaffected and unmolested. The same public places closed to everyone else remain gathering places for the unhoused, who continue to congregate in large and small groups in close quarters, sharing meals and bottles, pipes and needles, tents and sleeping bags.
In the scientific parlance Mr. Newsom is fond of invoking, albeit often wrongly, they have become the control group in the largest experiment on humanity in history (as such it’s worth noting that aside from a few isolatedoutbreaks the cohort exempted from draconian restrictions hasn’t experienced a spike in infections, much less deaths).
While California’s political class claim to be acting in the interest of public health they allow the homeless to continue their most dangerous behaviors. The homeless endanger themselves most of all, but also the communities in which they establish illegal encampments. They are exceptional potential vectors for the virus, roaming the streets at all hours, trespassing on private property, even breaking into houses and apartments. These behaviors are not exceptional, they are commonplace. If the political class truly was concerned about public health the homeless population would have been the first people they addressed. The same patterns are playing out in dozens of cities from Seattle to New York.
The political class’s treatment (or, more accurately, neglect) of the homeless is their biggest tell, but far from the only one. Four days before Easter Sunday Mr. Garcetti issued an order closing all public parks. His justification was that people gather in parks to celebrate and socialize the holiest day of the Christian calendar, and that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic such gatherings could be, in his words, deadly. “We just can’t take any chances,” he intoned. The mayor’s order didn’t just target a specific religious group, there also was a strong whiff of racism to it: The tradition of gathering in parks to eat, drink, and celebrate on Easter Sunday is largely a Latino one. Suffice it to say, rich white people from Bel Air do not descend on Holmby Park to break cascarónes on the holy day. The order was a breathtaking violation of the constitutional protections of people’s freedom of religion, assembly, and speech as well as due process and equal protection. The mayor’s timing – he announced the closures less than 72 hours before Easter weekend – seemed specifically intended to avoid legal challenges. Otherwise why not announce it a week or a month ahead of time to give families time to organize alternatives?
Even as the mayor deprived millions of Angelenos of the opportunity to observe their religion in their chosen manner, he allowed liquor stores and pot shops to remain open all day for business. Apparently Mr. Garcetti believes that liquor store managers and pot shop owners are better qualified to look after their customers’ well-being than priests are to care for their parishioners. And of course homeless people continued to gather in the very parks forbidden to everyone else.
That’s not a policy, it’s a tell.
The most recent tell is a proposal from L.A. city councilman Mike Bonin, who wants the city to use federal coronavirus relief and other funds to purchase homes and businesses that will face foreclosure as a result of the economic shutdown. As first reported here, Mr. Bonin intends to use the crisis to evict untold numbers of people from their homes in order to, perversely, create new homeless and low income housing. Again, swapping one cohort of homeless people for another isn’t a policy, it’s a tell.
There are many other examples. According to attorney Mark Geragos Mayor Garcetti has declared liquor stores to be “essential businesses” while forbidding Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Last week a mentally disturbed homeless woman who had tested positive for covid-19 was allowed to leave a homeless shelter and return to the streets. An LAPD spokesman said that the city cannot “force” homeless people to remain in shelters, even those who are known to have the virus. This is the same police force that has arrested healthy people for paddle boarding, protesting, and even walking in the wrong place.
Not policies, tells.
What, then, are these policies and orders intended to accomplish, if not the protection of public health? All signs point to a power grab by the political class that is unprecedented outside of wartime. Moreover, unlike emergency war powers this move will be permanent unless Americans start fighting back. And make no mistake: The window is closing. Every day people remain in lockdown is another step toward normalizing the extraordinary. Every time a constitutional violation goes unchallenged, another nail is driven into the coffin of Americans’ freedoms.
The political class’s agenda is increasingly clear everyday. What remains to be seen is how much more the people are willing to accept. A moment of reckoning is fast approaching.
In a world of scarce resources they’re turning a short-term public health crisis into a long-term national catastrophe
As the United States enters the second month of a historic government-ordered lockdown a few realities are emerging into relief. The first and most inexorable is the fact that the nation’s political class were utterly unprepared for this – “this” being an entirely foreseeable, indeed inevitable public health crisis. In an era of mass travel and global commerce it is inexcusable for officials and bureaucrats in urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles to have been caught so flat-footed. The consequence is the grim spectacle of politicians making it up as they go along. Americans in every demographic are suffering the consequences of the political class’s maladministration.
Ignore the glowing headlines about what a great job we’re doing here in California. Everyone should be watching the official response the Golden State with a combination of disgust and horror. As reported earlier this month in The All Aspect Report parts of L.A. are verging on anarchy as officials have effectively shut down civil society while simultaneously hamstringing law enforcement (the reality on the streets makes laughable the official claims by LAPD Chief Michael Moore and others that crime is “plummeting” as a result of stay at home orders).
This is a state that closes churches, synagogues, and other places of worship while allowing marijuana shops and liquor stores to remain open for business. A state that closes parks and beaches to families while allowing vagrants and drunks to occupy those very places by the thousand. These are warped priorities.
California, a place where the next major natural disaster is not a question of if but when, doesn’t have sufficient hospital capacity to handle a moderate pandemic. Officials at the state and local level failed to establish substantive plans in place to surge emergency services in a crisis. For example, the official San Francisco earthquake response plan from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services contains a single sentence about fire response and overall is impossibly vague. Likewise, the City and County of San Francisco’s official Emergency Response Plan is not a plan but an 89-page compendium of org charts and bureaucrat speak that would be useless in an actual emergency.
The results are obvious in the misallocation of scarce resources and manpower. Two weeks ago a dozen law enforcement officers from three different agencies arrested a man for paddle boarding in Malibu, even as city officials ignore countless crimes committed daily by the city’s homeless population. A man boasted to The All Aspect Report that he’d been pulled over by LAPD last week with an open beer in his cup holder, and was let go without so much as a warning. Meanwhile, Mayor Garcetti urges Angelenos to snitch on each other for violating city orders (he actually said, “snitches get rewards”) while vagrants congregate in close quarters on the steps of City Hall a few feet away from his press conference. So much for California’s “leadership.”
The only place where the official response has been worse is New York City. Like their suntanned counterparts on the Left Coast everyone in the Big Apple ought to be appalled. The leadership of a city that experienced 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy failed to plan for this kind of emergency. Maybe they were too busy building bike lanes. The city so far has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the country, with more than 11,000 to date. With less than six percent of the nation’s population the state of New York accounts for a third of all coronavirus deaths. It’s gotten so bad that the media and pundit class are rewarding Governor Andrew Cuomo for giving entertaining press conferences with his brother (who staged his own coronavirus quarantine). Not for handling the crisis, but for looking good on TV. Let that sink in.
The official response doesn’t just amount to political malpractice, it’s an existential failure that calls into question fundamental assumptions about the modern neo-liberal state. The relentless expansion of public bureaucracies since the Great Depression was based on a contract between the people and their governments (plural, because the contract is in effect at the local, county, state, and national levels). The people accept the proposition that the complexities of modern political, economic, and social systems demand the commitment of full-time subject matter experts (technocrats) who receive salaries from the taxpayers. In return the people/taxpayers expect those employees to dedicate their careers to sustaining, protecting, and improving those systems. That contract was fraying long before coronavirus as government at every level failed on issues including education, housing, health care, homelessness, infrastructure, and mobility.
Now, as official responses to the pandemic prove more chaotic and perhaps more destructive than the disease, Americans’ remaining faith in the political class is being shaken to its core. Tens of millions have lost work and income, their futures cast into doubt. All because of bungled responses to a public health crisis that every mayor, governor, legislator, and bureaucrat should have seen coming. In an era when the next terror attack, natural disaster, or public health crisis was a matter of time the political class was bickering about pronouns.
If government were like any other industry it would already be in receivership, its executives terminated, its rank and file radically reshuffled, its budgets slashed. Yet in the perverse logic of the public sector many officials see their coronavirus failures as opportunity. As Mr. Newsom said two weeks ago, it’s a chance for “re-imagining a more progressive future.”
Only in the realm of public policy does failure respawn stronger. Only in politics does one fail upward so spectacularly.
A second realization is emerging in the form of a question, albeit a clichéd one: When does the official cure become worse than the disease? The same political class who bungled the nation’s response to a crisis they should have seen coming is in the process of cratering the U.S. and global economies. As a direct result of their actions millions of Americans have lost their jobs in a matter of days while millions more have seen their incomes plummet or disappear. The stock market has erased more than $5 trillion in gains from the last four years. The unemployment rate is making the Great Depression look like the Roaring 80s, and it’s just getting started. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen has estimated that unemployment rate reached 13% by early April, and some observers suggest that it could exceed 30% before the crisis is over. Countless thousands of small businesses have been shuttered, many never to reopen. Lives are being shattered, livelihoods destroyed, college and retirement savings gutted.
As they continue to collect their own six figure, taxpayer funded salaries the political class that failed so thoroughly is warning everyone else that the worst is yet to come.
In a sense we are in another “9/11 moment” in which reality is obscured by the fog of the crisis (of course, many people have argued that the political class should have seen 9/11 coming as well). In response to the attacks the political class hurled the country into the catastrophic Iraq War. An attack that cost 2,996 lives triggered a response that killed as many as 600,000. In economic terms the hijackers spent roughly $500,000 to carry out their acts of cowardice. The total U.S. military response cost some $6 trillion.
In the fog the political class also convinced Americans that national security necessitated unprecedented governmental invasions of privacy – an “emergency measure,” of course. Nearly two decades later every email Americans send remains subject to scrutiny, every credit card transaction, stock purchase, telephone call, and doctor visit. County and local governments introduced mass surveillance of their populations in the form of cameras and drones, while even suburban police departments obtained military-grade equipment. All of this, said the political class, was necessary to protect us, just like the current national shutdown. The political class was profoundly, dangerously, fatally wrong then. Why should Americans trust them now?
A pandemic by its nature arrives, spreads, peaks, and declines. In contrast, the effects of mass unemployment grind on a populace for years or decades. Make no mistake: Unemployment and poverty are deadly. How many Americans already are sinking into depression, substance abuse, and lethargy because of lost hours, social distancing, and lockdown orders? New York governor Andrew Cuomo was dismissive this week of domestic violence, but how many are being victimized? How many addicts, no longer able to attend in-person meetings, are relapsing? How many people will resort to alcohol or drugs for the first time? How many will contemplate suicide? These are not rhetorical questions: Calls to suicide hotlines around the country are up substantially. A line covering North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota has seen calls spike by 300%.
Suffice it to say, if the political class’s panicked responses to the coronavirus pandemic triggers a long-term recession or even a depression, it will kill many more people than the disease itself. It will invariably result in higher crime rates, more domestic violence, more suicides.
In a world of uncertain choices and imperfect information, America’s political class so far has taken the most imperfect route imaginable.
*Yes, that sentence is an example of the old adage that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Comparing a viral pandemic to chronic conditions linked to genetics and behavior is apples and oranges. However, the metric officials are using to justify the massive response is the number of deaths. The current worst case scenario for coronavirus is around 200,000 deaths. Annually, nearly 700,000 Americans die of heart disease.
A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift
Since the first states issued self-isolation orders in early March Americans have surrendered a shocking portion of their rights to the political class. In a matter of weeks 250 years of constitutional law has collapsed upon itself like a spectacular legalistic quasar. Like an imploding star the collapse has generated a massive release of energy, only instead of electromagnetic radiation the energy here is frenzied governmental activity.
To be sure, a pandemic like coronavirus requires robust public sector action. But the brute force of the official response is deeply disconcerting, more so in light of history: Governments that seize control rarely relinquish it.
At the same time, two months into the emergency people are discovering that every level of their government was utterly unprepared for a 21st century public health crisis that wasn’t just foreseeable but inevitable. The precursors were SARS, H1N1, and avian flu. To not have seen something like coronavirus coming amounts to willful ignorance bordering on criminal negligence.
Of course the very officials and bureaucrats whittling away at civil liberties (while continuing to collect their taxpayer funded paychecks) are the ones who failed to prepare in the first place. In late January the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – an agency whose $5 billion annual existence is predicated on preparing for and responding to public health issues – was still reassuring Americans that coronavirus was not transmittable between people. In March, with the crisis in full bloom, the agency still was fumbling its response. So much for disease control and prevention.
The political class is proving that while they can’t contain a virus they can extinguish constitutional rights. Much easier for a governor or mayor to sign a one-page order written by staffers than to spend the months and years necessary to actually prepare for something like this in the first place. Much easier to bloviate at daily pressers than to devise a strategic response.
The price of their incompetence has been lost lives, lost jobs, lost wages, and lost futures. These countless individual tragedies have been compounded by a sudden, massive deprivation of civil liberties. In places like New York and California the deprivation has become virtually absolute.
With few exceptions people have accepted the diminution of cherished rights willingly, voluntarily, even enthusiastically. They’ve surrendered rights for which millions sacrificed, fought, and died over the course of two and a half centuries at the behest of a political class that in the best of times can’t keep the streets paved.
Virtually no one blinked last Thursday when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city was closing all public parks for 36 hours, from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, specifically to prevent people from gathering to celebrate Easter mass. The order effectively suspended two of the Constitution’s most precious protections, freedom of religion and assembly. Churches, of course, have been closed for weeks already.
People convening for a few hours to observe the holiest day of the Christian calendar warranted draconian measures and the full force of the state’s police powers to suspend core constitutional rights. Mr. Garcetti said, “I know this is a time of the year when many of our families and friends celebrate Easter by getting together outdoors –– and we just can’t take any chances right now.”
Yet he’s been taking chances with tens of thousands of homeless people since the crisis started, which in turn threatens the well-being of every single Angeleno. Make no mistake: Mr. Garcetti, like California’s entire political class, has concluded that homelessness, prostitution, drug dealing, addiction, crime, and public disturbances are acceptable exceptions to self isolation orders.
As millions of Angelenos shelter in place public parks have remained havens for homeless, vagrants, and criminals. Dealers openly sell meth, opiods, fentanyl, even home-brewed liquor without the slightest fear of consequence. Open-air drug deals go down in plain view of law enforcement. The All Aspect Report observed a resident of L.A.’s “A Bridge Home” shelter in Venice yesterday dancing on a sidewalk screaming, “It’s corona time, baby!” A few minutes later shelter staff allowed him back inside, no questions asked.
Homeless people gather in close quarters and in small and large groups without any law enforcement response. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Los Angeles City Council ordered that illegal encampments and entire tent cities will remain in place 24 hours a day, indefinitely. Council’s tortured logic is that homeless people are safer in filthy, vermin infested, crime ridden camps. In reality they’ve simply given up. San Francisco quickly followed suit. Meanwhile, across California politicians’ bold plans to house tens of thousands of homeless in hotels, motels, and recreation centers has quietly fallen apart. And just today the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD has all but ceased enforcement of sex trafficking laws, exposing the most vulnerable girls and women to new levels of danger and exploitation.
In one of the more infamous examples a man paddle boarding near the Malibu Pier was arrested two weeks ago for refusing to comply with orders that he leave the water. While the man behaved foolishly in defying law enforcement’s orders, it beggars belief that a single individual in the middle of the breakers required two lifeguard boats, a half dozen Sheriff’s cruisers, and two dozen personnel. He was literally the only person for hundreds of yards in any direction.
When people (again, foolishly) crowded L.A. County hiking trails last month the official response was to close all trails completely. Instead of such drastic measures perhaps some of those Sheriff’s deputies who spent time arresting an errant wave enthusiast could instead have been dispatched to enforce social distancing on trails. Then again that would require planning, strategy, and creative thinking, all of which are in dangerously short supply among our city’s and state’s electeds. Last weekend the Santa Cruz sheriff’s department handed out $7,000 worth of fines to a group of young people whose offense against the state consisted of purchasing beer.
Meanwhile, the county is dispatching enforcers to small businesses perceived as violating shut-down orders. Most of these visits are unannounced. The owners of a small print shop in north L.A. report that they have received visits on consecutive days, first by the Sheriff’s department and then by an city official who refused to identify himself (he also claimed to be “out of business cards”) but who left orders from the county health department related to the shop’s operations. The owners, who asked not to be identified for fear official retaliation (let that sink in, by the way), have been keeping the shop open to serve residents seeking, among other things, to apply for relief or small business loans under the CARE Act. If that isn’t an essential service it’s hard to imagine one, but it remains to be seen whether they will be allowed to continue.
People need to be demanding answers from the political class. Why are hundreds of thousands of vagrants and criminals allowed to roam free, their lives virtually unchanged, while everyone else is subject to virtually unlimited control? Why are some kids buying beer considered a greater threat than vagrants assaulting women and dealing drugs?
Stripped to the essentials government’s purpose is protect the populace. At every level, government has failed. Instead of protecting the people the political class is stripping them of basic civil liberties. A government that prioritizes prosecuting surfers and beer drinkers over pimps and drug dealers is a government adrift.
The most egregious of the violations is the virtual suspension of due process. Stay at home orders, orders banning business from operating, and orders forbidding people from assembling amount to an unprecedented intrusion by government into every single American’s life and an unprecedented use of the state’s powers – and it’s happened with zero due process. The many constitutional infringements include:
First Amendment. Stay-at-home orders by definition violate the First Amendment’s protection of peaceable assembly. In a very real way that right has all but ceased to exist. Meanwhile, city and state governments nationwide banned religious gatherings over Easter weekend. Some places like Los Angeles banned all gatherings, while states like Kansas banned more than 10 people. Regardless these orders are fundamental violations of the constitutional protections of religious freedom.
Fourth Amendment. State and local officials across the country are urging people to report violations of stay at home orders to law enforcement. Last Tuesday Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti openly encouraged Angelenos to “snitch” on each other, and this week Riverside County released and promoted a mobile app that allows neighbors to anonymously report one another. As the print shop case proves in stark relief officials have abandoned standards of probable cause or even reasonable suspicion, in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Due process has virtually ceased to exist. Extraordinary government orders have deprived tens of millions of their civil liberties, not to mention their livelihoods, without notice, an opportunity to be heard, nor a chance to rebut the justifications behind the orders. Procedural due process is the guarantee of a fair legal process when the government tries to interfere with a citizen’s protected interests in life, liberty, or property. Substantive due process is the guarantee that the government will not encroach on fundamental rights of citizens. Government at all levels has abandoned these precious guarantees.
Fifth Amendment, part 2. Official orders also are depriving millions of Americans of business income without any compensation. The shuttering of millions of businesses amounts to the biggest de facto public taking in American history, which under the Fifth Amendment requires due process and just compensation. A twelve hundred dollar check doesn’t count.
Sixth Amendment. Many official orders arguably are tantamount to criminal prosecutions. Shuttering a business, putting dozens or hundreds of people out of work, and destroying people’s life’s savings is a profound exercise of governmental police power. Every affected business owner is effectively presumed guilty. They have been given no opportunity to be heard, no trial by jury, no opportunity to present contrary evidence or witnesses, and no legal representation.
Eighth Amendment. The Excessive Fines Clause prohibits fines that are “so grossly excessive as to amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law.” While stay at home and other orders aren’t strictly “fines,” they have the same cumulative effect: Forcing businesses to close amounts to a fine, because the order deprives them of normal income. Moreover, to the extent the orders are enforced by government’s police power they may violate the amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Fourteenth Amendment. Again, many of the orders issued at the federal, state, county, municipal, and local levels have deprived Americans of fundamental rights. No one has been given notice or an opportunity to be heard.
It remains to be seen how many of these new restrictions will become permanent or semi-permanent. Yesterday Governor Gavin Newsom justified more stay-at-home orders by remarking, “Not only is the past not equal to the future, but we also have to recognize that we are not just along for the ride as it relates to experiencing the future. The future happens inside of us.”
Because, you see, we have always been at war with coronavirus.
Despite official promises and plans lawlessness remains the new normal in many neighborhoods
While public health orders have ten million Los Angeles County residents hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic, many of the region’s homeless – officially numbering nearly 60,000 in the county but in reality significantly more – are living as though nothing has changed. Encampments remain stubborn facts of life in virtually every community in the Southland, on sidewalks and in parks and public places closed to the general public. Homeless people socialize in close quarters and congregate in small and large groups, sharing cigarettes, food, drink, and drugs. Virtually none wear facial protection in accordance with the most recent orders.
In Venice Beach a group of homeless artists even put up a “permanent” art installation called The Tiki Bar where people have congregated over the last week (UPDATE 4/2/2020: The Sanitation Department removed the Tiki Bar. It will be kept in storage, as the department considers bulky items on sidewalks “not a health hazard” under the municipal code. The department left the remaining parts of the installation intact).
To be sure, the “homeless” are not a monolithic cohort, and people lose their housing all the time and for myriad reasons. Many are deserving of aid and assistance, and many do find it. But this surreal moment is a bona fide holiday for the criminals for whom homelessness is both cover and opportunity, as law enforcement has been ordered to stand down enforcement of all but the most serious crimes and to release thousands of “nonviolent” offenders early. Many L.A. communities were on edge even before the pandemic introduced this new level of risk, and Coronavirus has compounded people’s fear. Last week multiple Venice residents said that homeless people had “been walking up and down Paloma Avenue coughing loudly on all gates and screaming Corona.”
The All Aspect Report spent the last week documenting the situation in several communities around Los Angeles including Venice Beach, Santa Monica, downtown L.A., Hollywood, and Van Nuys. It was clear from the start that city officials are not enforcing stay at home orders against residents of shelters. There’s no enforcement of social distancing requirements in homeless encampments. In fact, from all appearances there’s no enforcement at all, at any level, of any aspect of the homeless crisis. As the pandemic cuts through Southern California, official failure puts everyone in danger, the unhoused themselves most of all.
The danger is no longer theoretical, and officials are running out of time. Last Monday, March 30 the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said two homeless people in L.A. have tested positive for coronavirus. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported last week that an employee of Union Rescue Mission, the largest homeless services provider in Skid Row, had tested positive.
The Mission’s Executive Director, Rev. Andy Bales, said an entire floor of the nonprofit’s five story shelter is in quarantine. And also as of Monday 24 LAPD officers had tested positive, many from the Central Division whose beats include Skid Row. Given how many 911 calls are related to homelessness it’s possible they contracted the disease that way.
All of this before the virus peaks in California sometime in the next three weeks.
Staff at homeless shelters aren’t enforcing health orders, allowing residents to come and go at will
On February 23 the City of Los Angeles opened a homeless shelter known as “A Bridge Home” in Venice. Mayor Garcetti and the City Council have promoted these temporary shelters as essential to the city’s comprehensive homeless strategy. A total of 30 locations are planned with a dozen open already. The Venice facility, which sits on an old Metro bus repair yard, houses 100 adults and 54 young adults (18-23) in a combination of modular units and a sprung structure.
The shelter’s location in the middle of a residential neighborhood and one block from an elementary school prompted strong community opposition, culminating in a lawsuit that delayed the project by nearly three years. Residents expressed fears that the shelter would attract criminals and endanger the community. As previously reportedby The All Aspect Report, their worst fears were coming true before the coronavirus emergency compounded the dangers.
To take one of many examples: In mid-March a Bridge shelter resident was sentenced to 180 days in county jail for threatening two women outside the facility (including a death threat to onoe) and smashing a half dozen cars. The man, known to shelter staff as a problem, was released after just 10 days as part of the county’s coronavirus-related incarceration downsizing. He was allowed to return to the shelter and was only removed by staff when a neighbor noticed he was back and called to complain. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Over the course of several days last week, constant flows of people were observed entering and exiting the shelter. They came and went singly, in pairs, and in small groups. Most used the main entrance, where a security guard let them in and out through the gate, coming into close and in many cases direct contact with everyone. She was not equipped with any protective gear and was not wearing gloves or a mask. She remained on duty and did not appear to wash or sanitize her hands. There also is a second gate farther down the block which some residents used to let people in and out on their own accord.
While Angelenos (a few scofflaws aside) restrict their movements to the “Essential Activities” defined in the state public heath department’s orders, in a single afternoont Venice Bridge residents walked the streets freely and interacted with people living in nearby encampments. They smoked cigarettes and cannabis and socialized in close quarters with each other and shelter staff. They engaged in black market transactions. There were physical altercations and shouting arguments. Suffice it to say no one engaged in social distancing.
An email to the executive director of Safe Place for Youth (SPY), the organization responsible for the shelter’s young adult (18-24) population, was not returned.
The scene was similar at the Bridge shelters at El Pueblo de Los Angeles downtown and on Schrader Boulevard in Hollywood. At el Pueblo dozens of homeless people congregated in close proximity in the park and sidewalk near the shelter. As in Venice, shelter residents came and went at will. A pair of individuals walked across the street and into Union Station. Again there was no evidence of social distancing and no washing stations or other prophylactic measures. Also as in Venice there are hundreds of tents and temporary shelters on the sidewalks and overpasses around the shelter.
One of the core premises of the A Bridge Home program is that it targets local hardcore homeless and gets them off the street. Large encampments covered public spaces around all three of the observed shelters.
Officials promised that “A Bridge Home” shelters would reduce street living in communities. The Mayor’s website says, “As the new shelters open their doors, City Sanitation teams will work to restore spaces that were previously encampments into open and clear public spaces.” So far they appear to be having the opposite effect: Encampments are as sprawling as ever in public spaces immediately adjacent to all three Bridge shelters. People live in tents on a lawn directly adjacent the el Pueblo shelter, tents and campers occupy streets and sidewalks around the Hollywood site, and Venice Beach is virtually at war. If anything street living has increased in proximity to the “A Bridge Home” shelters and brought danger with it.
Officials are enforcing public safety orders against everyone but the homeless, endangering everyone
In a pattern that has become distressingly familiar to Angelenos, there are two sets of rules during the coronavirus emergency: One for the homeless population and one for everyone else.
Current emergency orders from the county and state health departments restrict people’s activities to things like grocery shopping, going to the doctor, pharmacy, or veterinarian, caring for relatives or vulnerable persons, and legally mandated activities. It strains credulity to believe that the scores of homeless people at the two Bridge shelters were engaged in these “Essential Activities” even part of the time. The shelters are open 24 hours a day, meaning people come and go at all hours.
Meanwhile, the city and county of Los Angeles shuttered public access to beaches and parks last week. Mayor Eric Garcetti admonished Angelenos, “Too many people, too close together, too often. The longer we do that, the more people will get sick, and the more people will die. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.” He’s threatened to cut off water and power to “nonessential businesses” that violate the city’s closure orders, and encouraged neighbors to report each other. “You know the old expression about snitches?” he said last Tuesday. “Well, in this case, snitches get rewards.”
Yet thousands of homeless people remain concentrated in parks and other public spaces, unmolested by the same authorities threatening everyone else with penalties and fines. The danger to them is palpable, while the danger to the general public grows by the day.
The city’s disjointed and inconsistent efforts endanger everyone, including city employees and contractors
Two weeks ago Mayor Garcetti announced the city would accelerate the “Pit Stop” program that provides temporary daytime (7a.m. to 7p.m.) porta-potties, hand washing stations, and drinking fountains at homeless encampments. Equipment is contracted with United Site Services and some (though far from all) of the sites are staffed by employees of a San Francisco nonprofit called Urban Alchemy. According to its website, the company employs former long-term felons and assists them on their path back into society.
Over the weekend UA employees at two sites on the westside described their responsibilities as part janitorial and part security. One said that in addition to keeping the units clean, “We make sure no one’s doing any funny stuff in there, doing drugs, sexual, anything like that.” They said they had received basic hygiene training and been told to practice social distancing. They were supplied with spray bottles, bleach, and paper towels. One of the workers had just come back from eating lunch in his car. “Takes an extra few minutes now, because I disinfect the whole interior every time I get out.”
All agreed that camp residents are grateful for the services, though one added, “A lot of people want to vent to us. Some are crazy, some just don’t have anyone else to talk to.” As if on cue, a woman walked up to the attendant and demanded to know why the city had closed the bathrooms and showers at the beach. “That’s the only place we got to go, and they’re shutting it down!” She yelled for several minutes as he tried to explain closing the bathrooms wasn’t in his control.
It was difficult not to wonder whether these employees are properly trained and equipped for the tasks they’re being paid $16.50 an hour to do. They are outside for the duration of their shift and are exposed to filthy environments. They wear rudimentary protective gear like standard surgical masks and latex gloves. One of the employees was visibly wearing her mask improperly, and the mask itself appeared to have been reused several times. As coronavirus makes its inevitable way through the homeless population these workers will be a new front line. They do not appear prepared.
United Site Services employees set up the Pit Stops each morning and pick them up in the evning. At the Third Avenue camp on Monday a single worker from United Site Services – who was aware he was being filmed – hauled two regular porta-potties, a handicap accessible porta-pottie, and a mobile sink onto a flatbed trailer, presumably either to be moved to another location or returned to a company facility. He wore no protective gear save for a pair of gloves and had only a standard size dolly to assist him.
He began by emptying liquid from one of the porta-potties onto the sidewalk. The liquid ran onto the street and toward the storm drain. It also immersed the wheels and platform of the dolly the worker was using, and he stepped through it repeatedly. Over the next 15 minutes he loaded the other structures onto the flatbed. He was in direct contact with the structures nearly at all times. Several times he struggled with the weight, rocking the porta-potties back and forth and at one point jumping onto the dolly to tilt a unit backward. Virtually his entire body came into contact with the plastic surfaces of the units. Scientists have determined coronavirus can remain on plastic for two to three days.
An email to United Site Services was not returned.
The city also has set up water fountains at homeless camps. The fountains, which are not tended by UA or other employees, quickly become filthy. Down the street from the Third Avenue Pit Stop a man brushed his teeth at a temporary fountain the Department of Water and Power had connected to a fire hydrant. He repeatedly spat into the sink, washed his hands and face, and touched virtually every surface of the fountain.
City homeless workers not observing social distancing
Even the city-county agency responsible for homeless services has been part of the problem. Members of the Facebook Group Fight Back Venice! captured video of LAHSA workers handing out water bottles and other supplies to homeless people at the Third Avenue encampment. Like the residents and workers at the Bridge facilities, the LAHSA workers did not observe social distancing and came into proximate and direct contact with homeless people. The workers were not wearing protective gear, though one man appeared to have a bandana tied around his face.
A similar video was posted from the boardwalk of homeless people lined up (again in close quarters) to receive bottles of water from a LAHSA worker. That worker was not wearing protective gear or gloves.
Some nonprofit and faith groups also are putting themselves in harm’s way. Two volunteers with an organization called Bread of Life spent Saturday morning handing out sandwiches and bottles of water to homeless people in Venice.
The problem is getting worse, not better
The dynamics of homelessness endanger the wider population as well. A decade ago the chronically unhoused, for better or worse, congregated in a few neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Skid Row in Los Angeles, and north Bakersfield. Things were bad but still manageable, particularly given the billions of dollars in homeless-related public spending.
That’s all changed. These days L.A.’s homeless population is diffused throughout the region, a translucent parallel population superimposed upon communities. Encampments have developed social orders and some even have rudimentary economies and self-government. As previously reported by City Journal‘s Chris Rufo and others, once autonomous encampments are becoming interconnected and even interdependent. Mass transit and the profusion of scooters, e-bikes, bike share, and other “micro-mobility” programs provide ample opportunity for people to move among camps. Bike and scooter chopshops are commonplace in encampments. Last summer a resident of a homeless camp in Lake Balboa told The All Aspect Report that people know where to go to get which drugs and where to barter for electronics, bicycles, clothing, food, even sexual favors
This mobility presents an urgent challenge to public health officials during the pandemic. As the virus’s spread approaches its apexin the southland homeless people will be among the hardest hit: They live already with risk factors like poor sanitation, close contact, substance abuse, preexisting conditions, and compromised immune systems. A study released last week by researchers at UCLA, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that as many as 1,200 homeless people might die of the virus in the L.A. area alone. Unhoused victims could overwhelm the county’s medical resources, yet another source of danger for themselves and the wider community.
Whittier represents a prime example of this new dynamic. As soon as the first coronavirus cases were identified last week on Skid Row those who could began to flee. According to Paul Ramirez, founder of Whittier Town Hall, “Unfortunately, [the homeless] are not following any CDC or Public Health guidelines. They are congregating, sharing sleep areas, tents and needles. Local [homeless] are actually welcoming new arrivals, coaching them on our watch habits and directing them to our parks and vacated buildings. On Monday I spoke to a local homeless man and appealed to him to self-isolate, to seek assistance from his family and to take the Covid-19 crisis seriously. His response, ‘FU – If I die, I die.'”
It is well past time for city and county leaders to treat the homeless crisis with the urgency it requires during the coronavirus pandemic. The anemic response to date, the slow-motion rollout, is no longer acceptable. The challenge is compounded by years of poor planning, waste, and fraud.
Angelenos are doing their part. It’s time for the political class to do theirs.
For politicians this isn’t a national emergency, but “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
One of the greatest aspects of the United States of America is the way in which the country’s political class, for all their sins and flaws, rises to the moment when it really matters. Our national tapestry is woven with moments such as Congress gathering on the steps of the Capital and singing “God Bless America” the afternoon after 9/11. We remember Ronald Reagan standing before the Brandenburg Gate imploring Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the confidence people had in JFK and his team of the best and the brightest during the terrifying days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We remember Dwight Eisenhower defying members of his own party as well as the blue dog Democrats by sending the National Guard to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education. For all our collective national malefactions over the years these are the moments that have forged the American spirit in the modern era.
All of which is why it has been saddening to witness today’s political class respond to the existential threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than unifying in the face of an invisible enemy that kills regardless of party or faction, they have devolved into bouts of petty partisanship that would be unbecoming in normal times. Normal times these are not, and their failure risks becoming our nation’s failure. [UPDATE: On Friday, March 27 Congress passed a $2 trillion emergency stimulus package. The partisan bickering continued through the floor vote itself. It will be a long time before Americans know the full scope of the bill’s provisions.]
Instead of standing together and showing America and the world that they are worthy of the moment, over the past week members of Congress repeatedly have taken their toys and gone to their corners. As the stock market and economy careened toward recession and obliterated the financial security of 330 million Americans, members of the United States Senate, who call their institution the Greatest Deliberative Body in History, spent a week bickering over whether or not to bail out the post office.
At a moment when Americans need leadership, vision, and reassurance they were instead treated to the spectacle of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer spitting invective at each other across a split screen. Bernie Sanders, who has convinced millions that he’s a viable choice for President, skipped a vote on Sunday to host a virtual town hall from his basement with a neophyte legislator from Brooklyn. This is the man who last week snipped at a reporter that he was busy dealing with a “f***ing global crisis” and doing his “best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die.” Apparently his best doesn’t include showing up to vote, at least not when there’s a quixotic presidential campaign to attend to.
Both parties are showing Americans that they are incapable of setting aside ideology. Republicans want to hand out extra billions to industries that don’t need it, while Democrats have gone full Green New Deal and P.C. Neither set of demands have anything remotely to do with coronavirus. If the Senate is able to compromise and pass a bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t guarantee her chamber will so much as bring the bill for a vote.
In the most jaw-dropping display of cynicism to date, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) told reporters on Monday that the crisis is “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” Not an opportunity to help Americans, rescue the economy, or save lives, but to achieve partisan ideological goals. While Mr. Clyburn is a Democrat it’s safe to assume many Republicans feel the same way.
It’s important – nay, essential – to keep in mind that the 535 members of the United States Congress, along with their thousands-strong army of staffers, advisors, lawyers, and consultants, are among the few Americans who don’t have to worry about missing paychecks, losing their jobs, or being evicted from their homes during this crisis. They’ll be just fine. In fact, with a $2 trillion stimulus bill in the works their cups runneth over. The few of them who’ve contracted the virus will receive world-class medical care while millions of their fellow citizens wait for basic testing kits to reach their communities.
It is also essential to recognize that, a few scofflaws aside, the vast majority of Americans are comporting themselves with more seriousness, not to mention dignity and community, than their elected representatives. The news waves and social media are chock a block with acts of kindness: A small dental company in Oklahoma donated desperately needed medical supplies to a medical clinic. A barbecue join in Phoenix, Arizona brought hot meals to exhausted staff at a local hospital. Teachers in Indiana formed a car parade to visit their students and uplift everyone’s spirits. The Dropkick Murphys, Boston’s most beloved band, streamed a free concert for 150,000 people on St. Patrick’s Day.
At the same time millions of health care workers, first responders, delivery drivers, grocery store workers, volunteers, journalists, and community leaders are placing their own health at risk to do their jobs and serve their communities during the crisis. The average clerk at Ralph’s has shown far more moxie, courage, and generosity than the entire political class.
While Americans display their best impulses, the political class cannot rise above their worst.
It’s no better at the state or local level. Here in Los Angeles coronavirus has revealed in stark relief the fecklessness of Mayor Garcetti’s and the City Council’s approach to homelessness. More than a month into the crisis, while four million Angelenos (with the exception of a few idiots) self-quarantine and shelter in place, tens of thousands of homeless people, addicts, and lunatics wander the streets at all hours of the days and nights. They convene, as usual, in close proximity in desperately filthy encampments. They share food and drink, clothing, and hypodermic needles. At this point it’s all but certain that the disease will cut through their numbers like a scythe through dry wheat.
At the Mayor’s behest last week council belatedly passed a series of measures aimed at sheltering the homeless in city recreation facilities as well as hotels and motels. Their actions comprise not a coherent strategy so much as a series of impulsive reflexes. The belated plan to cram thousands of people into close quarters also conflicts with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control. At the same time the city has deployed hundreds of porta-potties and hand washing stations in homeless encampments, which units are serviced by blue collar workers who aren’t provided with even rudimentary protective gear.
As of this writing there’s been no visible change in the conditions on the streets. Reports from some communities, including Venice Beach, confirm that homeless populations actually are increasing, not decreasing. One neighbor told The All Aspect Report that she and her husband can “hear the hacking” from people on the street in front of their home. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reported over the weekend that that city’s leadership is “preparing” to make shelters safer.
Governor Gavin Newsom has fared somewhat better, though like so many other members of the political class he’s shown a lack of creative problem-solving. Mostly he’s holding long, meandering press conferences as is his wont, though he’s refrained from overt partisanship. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to believe that part of his job is to post as many videos as he can of his celebrity friends telling Americans what to do (Note to the Governor: Most Americans reflexively do the opposite of whatever Alec Baldwin says).
When the story of this crisis is written, the coda may well be the beginning of the end of America’s two legacy parties. If this is the best they can do in the face of a life and death crisis that threatens the lives and livelihoods of 330 million people, they do not deserve to lead. For the last three and a half years they’ve treated the country to the worst forms of partisanship, all too often comporting themselves like entitled, self-involved children. The GOP has enabled and encouraged Donald Trump’s most egregious conduct, while the Democrats all but abandoned any semblance of effective governance in an all-out, at all costs campaign to destroy him.
They could have seized this moment, as those who came before them, to rise above that perpetual, exhausting fray to deliver leadership and reassurance. They could have shown Americans they are capable of setting aside personal vitriol and political vendettas. They could have behaved like adults, like leaders.
Their failure must not be forgotten nor forgiven. When this is all over, there must be a reckoning, and Americans must hold the political class to account for its failures. The next crisis may not be so gentle with us.