A letter (pdf) sent to Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer on Friday expressed concern about recent statements both had made that restrictions may be prolonged.
In particular, Ferrer said on May 12 that some form of stay-at-home restrictions will remain in Los Angeles County “for the next three months” unless there is a vaccine for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, also known as the novel coronavirus. Garcetti said on May 13 in an interview with ABC News’s “Good Morning America” that Los Angeles would “never be completely open until we have a cure” for the CCP virus.
“Reports of your recent public statements indicate that you suggested the possibility of long-term lockdown of the residents in the City and County of Los Angeles, regardless of the legal justification for such restrictions,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband wrote. “Any such approach may be both arbitrary and unlawful.”
“We remain concerned about what may be an arbitrary and heavy-handed approach to continuing stay-at-home requirements,” Dreiband added.
The Justice Department acknowledges that Garcetti has “broad authority” to protect residents during the pandemic, Dreiband wrote.
“Temporary emergency measures may restrict our constitutional rights, but they must also have some ‘real or substantial relation’ to the emergency,” he added, noting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court some 115 years ago.
The Justice Department is “charged with protecting the federal statutory and constitutional rights of all persons in our country, and ensuring that governmental restrictions are not unconstitutionally burdensome,” Dreiband wrote.
“Even in times of emergency, when governments may impose reasonable and temporary restrictions, the Constitution and federal statutory law prohibit arbitrary, unreasonable actions,” he added. “Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
Garcetti’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the contents of the letter.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said in an emailed statement that the quote from Ferrer cited by the Justice Department was “taken out of context.”
“Public Health is modifying Health Officer Orders on a regular basis to support reopening sectors and relaxing restrictions,” the public health department noted.
County officials had earlier clarified that Ferrer’s comments were taken out of context and the county aims to relax restrictions in the coming months. On May 19, officials announced the goal of a broad, “safe reopening” of the county by July 4. They also announced that some businesses, including pet groomers and car washes, could reopen immediately.
Garcetti said the city would be guided by science and data rather than politics. He said the city’s seven-day average of deaths is holding and he feels confident about measures the city is taking.
“We are not guided by politics,” Garcetti said at a briefing, reported The Associated Press. “There’s no games, there’s nothing else going on, and that’s the way we’re going to continue to safely open.”
“There’s no city in the world that right now doesn’t have some sort of orders and restrictions because we know this virus kills,” Garcetti added.
Los Angeles County, which houses about a quarter of the state’s nearly 40 million residents, has had more reported COVID-19 deaths than the rest of the state combined and near half of the state’s CCP virus cases.
As such, business reopenings may look different there than in the rest of California.
Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, expressed concern on Friday over the spread of the CCP virus in the Los Angeles region, and asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the source of new cases to help prevent future outbreaks.
Chris Karr and The Associated Press contributed to this report.