Why Was COVID-19 so Bad in L.A.?

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The pandemic was a symphony of dysfunction that has shown us what we knew all along: inequalities in Los Angeles are killing the city.
Art by Jacklyn Arriola

If you wanted a peek at one of the hidden reasons why COVID-19 coincided with a mood of inexorable systemic collapse felt all over L.A, a good place to look might have been a brightly colored Mexican restaurant called Hecho En Mexico on the morning of August 14, 2021, at the height of the Delta surge. 

Governor Gavin Newsom, a millionaire wine impresario-turned-politician was facing a recall election, and was visiting East L.A. to urge Latinos to vote no. Outraged by pandemic regulations and lockdowns, and propelled by the hypocritical blundering of Newsom’s notorious French Laundry Incident (where he got caught yukking it up, unmasked, at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants), Republicans seemed to have the upper hand. The tide would ultimately turn decisively in Newsom’s favor, but he didn’t know that yet, and he desperately needed support from Latinos, a once reliable Democratic voting bloc now suddenly up for grabs.

As he stood barefaced in front of a few masked supporters at Hecho En Mexico, Newsom’s speech conjured an image of a potential Republican governor doing away with COVID restrictions, and then weaponizing line-item vetos and judicial appointments to erode the “healthcare, the dignity, and the rights of our Latino community.” 

As he was winding down, a friendly, disembodied voice amid the press scrum chimed in: “Do you wanna say anything in Spanish?” 

“I do, but I should not have taken French as a kid,” said Newsom.

In short, the politician was confident he knew best. He needed buy-in and cooperation, and what he was trying to convince people to do may well have been in their best interest, but he literally and figuratively wasn’t speaking their language. According to a blistering op-ed in the L.A. Times by Gustavo Arellano, it was never going to be easy for Newsom to simply ask Latinos to “save his political nalga,” since COVID-19 has “devastated” their community and they, “remain disproportionally unemployed, underhoused and overburdened, with little relief in sight.” 

The overarching question behind all this is: “How did COVID get so bad here?” The short answer is that it all stems from the divide between the largely Latino and Black working class and the largely white upper class. But the more frustrating, longer answer is that as devastating as it has been here, COVID wasn’t that bad compared to other comparably-sized chunks of the U.S. population. Southern California was momentarily the white-hot epicenter of the COVID universe. Our response to the virus should have been better, and could have been better, and while there wasn’t a single culprit that kept it inadequate, the aforementioned long-standing class divide continues to crop up again and again as the most glaring explanation.

“When it comes to equity and providing the basic essentials for good health, L.A. has much room for improvement. Those who say it is doing well are looking at the overall metrics on a COVID data dashboard and not taking into account the racial disparities.”

Bita Amani

At 48.6 percent, the “Latino-Hispanic” ethnic group makes up the plurality of Angelenos, and the frustration Arellano cited simply reflects a long-simmering, community-wide discontent that’s only become more evident since COVID showed up. The pandemic has been like the old blacklight-on-a-hotel-bed-sheet trick for all of L.A.’s historical problems, like housing inequality, pollution, lack of public health preparedness, and Hollyweird medical quackery. But easily the brightest blob on the sheet was the cultural chasm created by our hideous, race-and-ethnicity-based class system, and our elites’ increasing inability to yodel a message across that chasm and be heard — even if they can yodel a sentence or two in Spanish.

This system, in which Latinos became our city’s ostensibly expendable underclass, exists because white settlers made it so, according to William Francis Deverell, professor of history at USC and a scholar of the American West. If you’ll pardon a one-paragraph history lesson: Los Ángeles (with an accent over the A) was seized in a war of territorial acquisition in 1846, and then subject to what Deverell called a “rival migratory stream of Anglo-Americans.” Settlers swamped the Latino and mixed-race population demographically, changing it from Los Ángeles to Lahs Anjuheless. Then when the settlers wanted cheap labor in the early 20th century — fortuitously right around the time of the Mexican Revolution, Deverell explained — Mexicans showed up and took jobs with, in Deverell’s words, “low ceilings of advancement into higher level positions. So almost by definition, working class labor.”

L.A. is a particularly egregious example of an all-too familiar paradigm in which failures of social justice leave the marginalized at a disadvantage during a crisis. But the crisis was also magnified as it unfolded in particular by communications blunders. Poor communication maximized confusion, making businesses and renters feel like there was relief when there wasn’t. A tiny minority of professionals — especially those who were already de facto virtual workers — heard the public health messages loud and clear, and acted accordingly. But the message was on an extremely limited wavelength, not picked up by most of the city, which fell prey to a devastating plague of distrust.

Deborah Glik, a professor in the department of community health sciences at UCLA who focuses on health communication, told me L.A. was set up for disaster because poor public health communication was “an underlying condition that should have been addressed sooner, but it wasn’t.” Poor communication was Glik’s primary culprit throughout our conversation, although she also frequently pointed to distrust in local authority amid “pockets of conservatism in Los Angeles that we sort of overlook all the time.” 

Other public health experts found more fault with local elected leaders. “When it comes to equity and providing the basic essentials for good health, L.A. has much room for improvement,” said Bita Amani of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU), a social epidemiologist and co-chair of UCLA and CDU’s COVID-19 Racism and Equity Task Force. “Those who say it is doing well are looking at the overall metrics on a COVID data dashboard and not taking into account the racial disparities.” 

As Deverell told me, early on in the crisis, it felt to many Angelenos like an army of brave healthcare workers were engaged in trench warfare against the virus while the rest of us stayed home and cheered them on. “Acute care can provoke all kinds of heroic healthcare responses,” he said, “but the wider social problems and social challenges of inequality, poverty — these comorbidities of disease that hit both Black and brown and poor communities much harder than anyone else — a healthcare professional can’t solve that all by themselves.”

Amani told me she fears our city’s underlying conditions are still not being addressed, at a time when “our children are going back to K-12, and a substantial part of this county will never be vaccinated, or at least not vaccinated fast enough, either because of age, health status, politics, or earned distrust.” 

But L.A. had a ton of “underlying conditions” — not just poor communication — that had ripened us for COVID havoc while we weren’t looking.

For starters, look at our air quality — the fourth worst of any U.S. city according to the American Lung Association. Our state is also in the midst of a devastating, multi-decade drought, and we had to deal with wildfires amid the pandemic. 

“Air pollution is part of the answer,” said UCLA researcher Michael Jarret, project leader at the Fielding School of Environmental Health Sciences. In April he published a study demonstrating that neighborhoods with the highest measurements for air pollution experienced a 60 percent higher COVID death toll over those with the best air quality. L.A.’s wind patterns and topography naturally worsen pollution, but it’s especially dense along what Jarret called the “major goods-movement corridors” that connect to the ports.

L.A. County’s transportation hubs in Long Beach, San Pedro, and the cities and neighborhoods along the 710 freeway that connect to those hubs are largely Latino and Black. In 2021, as the pandemic dragged on, the Port of Los Angeles saw record activity — the port’s “biggest June ever” according to a press release — and it stands to reason it would have consequently resulted in record pollution in those parts of the county.

Despite COVID attacking the already-vulnerable lungs of working Angelenos, it initially felt like L.A. would emerge relatively unscathed. At first, Mayor Eric Garcetti seemed like a can-do science-believer who was going to get the virus under control in short order. TV critic Robert Lloyd of the L.A. Times wrote in April of 2020 that compared to President Trump, Garcetti came across as an “inspirational technocrat” in his COVID briefings, when he said things like, “​​We have not seen the darkest days, but we will march forward, and we’ll march forward together.” Over a year later with the pandemic still raging, Garcetti is no longer marching alongside the residents of his city. He’s awaiting Senate confirmation to become an ambassador, and when that happens, he’s moving to India.

But way back in our first COVID year, it turns out L.A., a city that was supposed to be doing things right, was taking superficially bold and resolute stances on things that saved no lives like shutting down hiking trails. According to Glik, the public health communicator, the model officials were following at that time was the one left over from the H1N1 virus (AKA Swine Flu) outbreak in 2009. Mexico City, which was an epicenter of that crisis, had stopped the virus with a lockdown that lasted roughly two weeks. “I think most public health people assumed that if everybody locked down for a month, we’d be fine,” Glik said. 

But it didn’t work out that way. Glik partly blamed communicators’ emphasis on focusing on the older and more at-risk population in a city that skews young. “Younger people were out and about,” Glik said. “They were socializing, even in the lockdown. Some adhered, and others didn’t or couldn’t.” 

“It’s much better to distribute messages through [community] people. That’s essentially what has happened in the last year, but it should have happened sooner.”

Deborah Glik

During the “safer at home” days of the early pandemic, bars and clubs were shuttered, but according to the LAPD, young people just migrated to parties in overcrowded vacation rentals in places like the Hollywood Hills. Over Memorial Day weekend, the Hollywood LAPD station reported 49 calls from neighbors about parties — which they said was 15 to 20 percent more than a normal non-pandemic Memorial Day weekend. According to Glik, this was a bigger problem than anyone even knew at the time in that scientists remained unaware of the full potential spread of COVID by asymptomatic people. The first truly in-depth scientific profile of asymptomatic COVID carriers, which confirmed that they “spread the virus efficiently,” didn’t come out until June.

COVID also struck amidst a horrific housing crisis. Last February, quarterly numbers from the National Association of Home Builders, reported Los Angeles had the worst housing situation in the country — officially worse than the more famous housing crisis in San Francisco. Only 11.3 percent of L.A. homes sold during the fourth quarter of the 2019 fiscal year — versus the average American municipality’s 63.2 percent — were actually considered affordable to an L.A. family making the local median income of $73,100. 

Since homeownership is simply out of the question for so many, 64.1 percent of Angelenos rent (as of 2018). But that doesn’t help much because of the even more glaring problem: outrageously unaffordable rent. According to a 2021 report from the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, a renter in L.A. County trying to support a family and make ends meet by working multiple minimum wage jobs could do so by simply working 145 hours per week

So while a small minority of Angelenos fit the stereotype of working from home in pajama pants, wondering when spin classes will come back, the stereotype is largely inaccurate. Angelenos can more fairly be stereotyped as house-poor “essential workers,” struggling to eat and pay rent off the same paycheck — or crowded together, with multiple people per bedroom. 

It didn’t take long for the results of L.A.’s housing crisis to play out in its COVID crisis, although few policy makers made the connection right away. Following weeks of progress during the March-April 2020 shutdown, one of the first major case spikes followed a heatwave that struck in mid-April. It was bad enough that on April 24 temperatures in East L.A. unexpectedly hit the mid-90s, and the city opened public cooling centers, with Eastsider noting at the time, “Many public facilities — such as libraries and recreation centers — normally used as official and informal cooling centers have been closed during the coronavirus outbreak.” About a year later, an investigation by Politico found that working class Angelenos crowding into small rooms with window A/C units likely worsened the spread of the virus.

For those with nowhere to shelter, the results looked even worse. To wit: COVID is about 50 percent deadlier than average if you happen to be an unhoused Angeleno when you get it. A state program called Project Roomkey aimed to quickly mitigate the damage by housing people in vacant hotel rooms, but L.A.’s version was widely regarded as a failure, only reaching 30 percent of its goal before it went on hiatus in September of 2020. The mayor opted not to use the power of his office to commandeer hotel rooms, so the success of the program was subject to the vicissitudes of the hospitality business and the outcry of NIMBY residents who didn’t want the program in their neighborhoods. Plus, there were the complaints of the program participants themselves, who, among other observations, compared Project Roomkey to being in jail.

As of October 2021, there were 9,203 confirmed COVID cases among L.A.’s unhoused, 237 of which were fatal.

It’s somewhat astonishing, then, that based on early narratives about the pandemic in L.A., we were either one of the only places brave enough to take action or we were living in an overly cautious, business-unfriendly, socialist nightmare. In the face of President Trump’s pandemic denialism, Los Angeles Magazine called Garcetti one of the “heroes of the plague” in an April 2020 article. Trump duly played his part in the drama by antagonizing Garcetti on Twitter, at one point retweeting a post referring to the “People’s Republic of Los Angeles,” and saying Garcetti was “out of control like the rest of the democrats.”

“Regionally, I think we’re much more sophisticated in our media, so we understand how big and complex this place is,” Deverell told me. But that can go out the window if you aren’t going outside much. The pandemic may have made it more tempting than ever to get our notions about our own city from national media sources that, in Deverell’s assessment, “lean towards caricature and frankly nonsense.” The right-wing pundits mocked L.A. with their usual enthusiasm; the serious mainstream outlets considered whether L.A.’s car culture was reducing COVID spread; the miasma of social media filtered out into the real world, as banners claiming COVID was caused by 5G wireless signals appeared above the 101.

It’s worth pausing here amid the conspiracies to look into L.A.’s famous predilection for expensive new age snake oil as a potential cause of some of our COVID woes. Usually no one bats an eye when juice shops plaster pseudo-medical claims all over their marketing materials, but in December, the local chain Juice Crafters went as far as hanging a giant banner urging customers to “GET IMMUNE!” via juice (as pictured, naturally, in paparazzi photos). By the time the shots were being approved, it was fairly common for wellness junkies with large platforms and no discernible MAGA affiliation to disparage vaccines. Dua Lipa’s boyfriend Anwar Hadid — who is also Gigi and Bella’s brother — said, for instance, he “absolutely” would not get the vaccine, and that “our bodies are made by the creator to do way more than we think.”

William M. London, a professor of public health at Cal State Northridge, and a prominent junk science debunker, told me he personally developed and maintains a comprehensive list of “Dubious COVID-19 Treatments and Preventives” at the website of the anti-pseudoscience nonprofit Center for Inquiry. A quick scan of the list reveals that the federal government has dinged hundreds of gemstone healers, acupuncturists, homeopaths, and manufacturers of various sorts of beams and sound guns for claiming that their wares worked to prevent or treat COVID infections. For instance, Westwood-based supplement manufacturer Chromadex was served a strongly worded letter from the FDA for claiming it made supplements that “support innate immunity to coronaviruses and other viruses.” However, London noted, “Most quackery avoids regulatory action, and most regulatory actions are weak.”

But if reading that last section made you want to fire off a deadly zinger, let me go ahead and beat you to it: There was probably no more prevalent junk science out there during the pandemic than the inconsistent guidance of our government’s science communicators. Glik, the UCLA public health communications expert, acknowledged there was a problem in this regard. “We try to do what’s evidence-based — what’s valid to say, but sometimes it takes a while to figure out,” she said.

The dissemination of basic information was the local government’s biggest communication problem during the pandemic if you ask Brandon Balderrama, hair stylist and owner of Liberated Salon in Atwater Village. Mandated closures and capricious new rules materialized abruptly often and without warning. “No one notified me through any process the entire time,” Balderrama claimed.

Balderrama grew up biracial in pre-gentrification Los Feliz and then braved the harsh and unforgiving L.A. business environment to open a salon where he cuts the hair of the exact people who showed up to gentrify his own neighborhood. His bristly, punk-inflected personality lends itself to getting to the point, but it wasn’t easy as a business owner to cut through the noise and figure out the right thing to do during the pandemic. “People that own businesses in California own them because they’re type-A crazy people that can’t follow the rules, because it’s not for the money,” he said.

Balderrama’s experience with poor communication is common, Glik told me, because in normal times L.A.’s public health regulators usually make themselves known to citizens in a very limited way, largely in specific industries. “Unless you’ve had an encounter with that department — there’s things you’re doing, sanitation, restaurants, all that stuff — a lot of people just aren’t that familiar with what public health does.”

With public health officials used to focusing on compliance and enforcement, it took them too long to figure out how to get their messaging out into communities. One COVID lesson Los Angeles seems to have learned is that an effective public health outreach program first asks local leaders what they need before demanding their buy-in. “It’s much better to distribute messages through [community] people,” Glik said. “That’s essentially what has happened in the last year, but it should have happened sooner.”

In one instance, highlighted in press materials from USC, a film production company called Everyone Can Eat reached out to a Black preacher in Watts named Alvin Stafford, asking to shoot a pro-vaccine video in his church. ​“I declined and said it wasn’t something I was willing to be a part of unless someone provided us with vaccines,” Stafford told USC, adding, quite reasonably, that he “didn’t want to encourage something that wasn’t available.” The eventual result of Stafford’s pushback, according to the report, was a giant vaccination clinic in Watts, run by name-tagged staff from USC and Martin Luther King hospitals, in which residents were offered their pick of the three vaccines. Consequently, Stafford let the production company shoot their videos.

The humility necessary to figure out how to get a community effort like this off the ground in 2021 was in short supply in 2020, though, when sweeping public health pronouncements came thundering into the lives of residents just trying to go about their business. The restaurant business in L.A. got more than its share of media oxygen when it came to COVID regulations, leaving owners of businesses like salons more than a little confused about exactly what all these public health regulators wanted from them.

“People that own businesses in California own them because they’re type-A crazy people that can’t follow the rules, because it’s not for the money.”

Brandon Balderrama

When I interviewed him in May of 2021, Balderrama said business was returning to relative normality after over a year with only “pockets of time that we were allowed to open” before the days of widespread vaccination. These “pockets,” he said, were easy to miss. “I found out through tweets from Gavin Newsom landing on one of my client’s computers,” he told me. “My clients would text me ‘Hey, you’re open!’ or ‘You’re closed.’”

It was on March 13, 2020 that Garcetti suggested that worried diners should switch to takeout to support restaurants, and said, “If you were going to go out to dinner, maybe you don’t go out to dinner.” It was a signal that the pandemic was, perhaps, more serious than the imperative to keep restaurants up and running. Two days later, on March 15 Garcetti shut down bars and forced restaurants to switch to take-out and delivery service only. Garcetti’s restaurant shutdown made him look prescient, coming ahead of the similar shutdown across New York state. The impression was that Los Angeles was going to have strict COVID rules, and hopefully beat the virus into submission quickly.

Unfortunately, Glik lamented, “People get used to one thing, and then it’s another thing, and then it’s another thing.”

On May 29, of 2020 the county took us all by surprise by issuing guidelines allowing certain businesses to reopen. Most famously, this meant restaurants in L.A. could put tables in their parking lots, but it also allowed stylists like Balderrama to reimagine their hair salons as outdoor operations, which Balderrama made a good faith effort to do. “I think me and one other crazy barbershop were the only ones on the entire East Side that were psycho enough to make that a thing.”

Unless a salon could somehow set up a shampoo bowl outdoors, dry, outdoor haircuts were not as relaxing as the balmy dining experiences that the city clearly had in mind when they rolled out the Al Fresco initiative. Sprinkling someone’s skin with tiny hairs on a sweaty summer day, and having no means of washing off that hair other than a spray bottle and a towel is far from ideal. “It was such a nightmare,” Balderrama told me. “I ended up fainting and crashing on all of my equipment in front of a customer out there.”

The whiplash just got worse and worse.

The campus of the former St. Vincent Medical Center was turned into an overflow hospital in April. In May, Garcetti helped create a procurement project called “Logistics Victory Los Angeles” to speed up the delivery of PPE to medical workers. In June, the county announced that the filming of TV and movies would be allowed to resume. The impressive, though downright byzantine, safety measures put in place at the demand of the big showbiz unions were, ironically, well beyond what you’d see when you, say, walked into a hospital. In November, the city announced the closure of a COVID testing site at Union Station in order to allow filmmakers to shoot a scene for Netflix’s He’s All That (Tomatometer score: 34 percent) then reversed the closure following immense backlash. By December, the triage center at St. Vincent would be hosting medical drama shoots, including for the pilot of a show called Triage, possibly coming soon to ABC.

Despite two small upticks of infection in 2020, Los Angeles seemed like it was going to get off relatively easy. “Although I question whether [this impression] was truly deserved,” said Claudie Bolduc, a UCLA emergency room doctor, “L.A. was often celebrated as the poster child of how to handle the pandemic.” However, Bolduc told me, “As pandemic fatigue grew alongside the absence of a palpable local surge, Angelenos were quick to throw caution to the wind.”

And then the case numbers started to climb in earnest as the weather cooled down. The so-called “California variant” of COVID-19 known as L452R (actually first detected in Denmark and present in California as early as May of 2020) was probably the culprit in the case surge that made Los Angeles the center of the COVID universe over the winter. Dining at restaurants was shut down once again in late November, but filming puttered along despite a steady drumbeat of Hollywood COVID outbreaks.

The contradictions were all too much for Angela Marsden, the owner of Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill in Sherman Oaks, who got furious about a film set operating next to her shuttered sports bar on December 5. So Marsden posted an epic front-facing camera video online that rapidly went viral on MAGA Facebook. “Everything I own is being taken away from me, and they set up a movie company right next to my outdoor patio,” said the telegenic Marsden, who, three days later, was holding court about her grievance on Fox News.

In a front page article that ran on January 9, UCLA infectious disease expert Robert Kim-Farley told The New York Times we were “having our New York moment.” This phrase ended up being the front page headline, even though it actually understated things. From mid-March to Mid April of 2020, New York had about 5,000 new cases per day. From mid-December to mid-January, Los Angeles County was seeing more than double that amount: roughly 12,000 new cases per day.

As L.A. suffered, the Fox News headlines practically wrote themselves. “Los Angeles County, known for strict lockdowns, hits 1 million COVID cases,” reads the title of one online story from January 17. The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal spiked the ball as well, writing that “Politicians [in California] believed their strict lockdowns and mask mandates would defeat the virus, but they didn’t, and the latest infection surge has exposed deep problems.”

Bad faith or not, the right-wingers were on the money in one sense: Deep problems have been exposed. L.A. asked a lot of business and workers alike by imposing tough lockdowns early on, and the governor, Board of Supervisors, and mayor certainly gave off the impression that they had citizens’ backs; but, as promised government aid failed to materialize, residents of L.A. begged to differ.

“I know L.A. has benefitted during this time from programs that other cities have not had,” said 28-year-old Gissel Garcia, who spent the pandemic in an overcrowded apartment, like 41 percent of Angelenos, including 55 percent of Hispanic Angelenos. The Garcias’ one-bedroom home, which she shared with four other people, became an active battleground against the virus. When I asked Garcia if she trusts city officials, she said, “If it’s between yes and no, I’d feel more comfortable answering no, I do not trust them.”

Garcia’s is just one tense story from the peak of the pandemic. In January of 2021, after spending the day keeping her son and younger sister on task with their distance learning, Gissel had to take a life-or-death cooking lesson. Her 48-year-old mom, Margarita, a house cleaner, normally would have made dinner, but she had just tested positive for the coronavirus. She was too tired and sick, and didn’t want to contaminate the food. So the role of family chef fell to Gissel instead.

Dinner was Margarita’s chicken soup, but Gissel had no idea how to make it. “My cooking is very limited, so she was just directing me,” Gissel said. Her mom sat a safe distance away, masked, and called out orders — when to stir, how to chop, how high to set the flame on the stove. “We tried to keep the mood up, but I was personally really scared that the virus would take a turn for the worse and something would happen to my mom, especially since my dad just passed away last year.”

Ultimately, Gissel succeeded in her two new roles: ad-hoc chef, and ad-hoc health director for her household. Everyone got fed, and in the ensuing weeks, Margarita recovered. “My entire household was able to avoid getting infected,” Gissel said. “I guess kind of, like, miraculously.”

When I spoke to her months later, as the wave of infections from the Delta variant crested, Gissel told me she’d gotten the Pfizer vaccine, and, again, perhaps miraculously, no one in her house had gotten a breakthrough infection.

But throughout the pandemic, Gissel was staring down the barrel of a second crisis for her family, and it’s one that was staggeringly, gut-wrenchingly common in our city: She was facing eviction. Early in the pandemic, the CDC grasped the risk of eviction in an environment where people were expected to shelter in place, and a series of eviction moratoria at all levels of government went into place around the country. “Lifting eviction moratoria led to a 30 percent increased risk of contracting COVID-19 among people who were evicted and those with whom they shared housing after eviction,” the CDC later determined. The federal ban on evictions has ended, but as of this writing, L.A. County’s has been repeatedly extended and is still in place.

“The question is going to be: Are we learning lessons during COVID that we can take forward in productive ways for the broader communities of Los Angeles? And it’s too soon to tell.”

William Francis Deverell

In March 2020, Mayor Garcetti announced a freeze for all rent-controlled units in L.A., saying at the time that keeping rents the same during the pandemic was “a common sense action on top of the eviction moratorium that will help folks stay in their homes and make ends meet.” And yet, on September 23 of that same year, the Garcias received notice from their landlords at the now-notorious complex known as Hillside Villa, that their unit’s rent would in fact be increased to its apparent market rate. They had been paying $1,089, and were now expected to pay $2,450.

Despite a toilet leak, a broken closet door, a set of worn out blinds, and other maintenance that management had been notified of and, Gissel told me, ignored (management at Hillside Villa never answered my request for comment), their apartment had been a decent refuge from the tempest outside. And thanks to their unit being one of the 60 subsidized apartments at Hillside Villa, the family was able to afford rent though a combination of Margarita’s house-cleaning and Gissel’s unemployment. The city of Los Angeles had been subsidizing rent in those 60 affordably priced units, but the decades-old bargain that paved the way for those subsidies was in the process of expiring at the beginning of 2020.

Having already fallen partially behind on the rent the previous month, the Garcias resolved to quit paying altogether, knowing the eviction moratorium would keep them off the streets for at least a while. On January 31 — about two weeks from the peak of new cases in L.A. County — they received their eviction notice. Per a new state law, it included an explanation of the eviction moratorium in clear language, including language like, “You will still owe this money to your landlord and can be sued for the money, but you cannot be evicted from your home if you comply with these requirements.”

For all the differences in their circumstances, both Brandon Balderrama and Gissel Garcia ended up grateful for the eviction bans, which have been extended until January 31, 2022 in L.A. County even as federal and state moratoria have been left to expire. The Garcias, who harbor no illusions about affording their now-inflated rent will have no choice but to find a smaller place to live. In September of 2021 Gissel’s luck improved slightly; one of her sisters moved away to college, and she finally managed to find a customer service job at a law firm. Yet, as a family of four in, most likely, a small two-bedroom, it will still be next to impossible for a sick family member to successfully isolate in their new home during a pandemic. Leaving L.A. is not off the table. “As much as I would hate to leave Chinatown,” Gissel told me, “my money could be stretched elsewhere.”

Balderrama, meanwhile, will have a year to pay back his overdue rent. When I last spoke to him in May, he was going to owe ten full months of back rent. The moratorium was, in effect, a loan, and his business just has to be that much more profitable over the next year to pay it back. “I know I’m a hundred percent gonna make it. I have a plan for how I’m going to make it,” he told me.

Deverell, the historian, also pointed toward some sources of optimism. “The medical research that takes place in Southern California is cutting edge,” he noted. He’s confident that L.A.-based scientists, such as “biologists, and emergency medicine researchers,” will one day be regarded as some of COVID’s biggest heroes “but we just may not know it yet because maybe their results haven’t yet gone public.”

However, he added, “The question is going to be: Are we learning lessons during COVID that we can take forward in productive ways for the broader communities of Los Angeles? And it’s too soon to tell.”

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