LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fearing a widespread health crisis, Californians moved broadly Friday to get in front of the spread of the coronavirus, shuttering schools that educate hundreds of thousands of students, urging the faithful to watch religious services online and postponing or scratching just about any event that could attract a big crowd.
The effects were big and small — and in some cases even surreal.
Freeways in and around downtown Los Angeles, normally at a standstill on a workday, were mostly clog-free. Popular restaurants were desperate for patrons, and typically crowded gyms had plenty of floor space. The unusual phrase “social distancing” — simply, keeping away from other people to prevent the spread of the illness — was suddenly part of everyday conversation.
In a major development affecting 750,000 students, California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, announced they would temporarily close starting March 16.
South of San Francisco Bay, Santa Clara County reported coronavirus cases tripled this week and as of Thursday night there were 79 cases and more than half were infected through so-called community transmission — in other words, the source of the infection was not known. One person died and 37 were hospitalized.
But there were many smaller announcements that also signaled changes in the way Californians go about their daily lives.
A Santa Monica musical instrument store known for intimate, in-store concerts, McCabe’s Guitar Shop, announced it was postponing its shows through the end of March. Popular supermarket Trader Joe’s said on its website it was suspending all food and beverage samples in stores. With restaurants taking a financial hit, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is urging residents to order home delivery instead.
The Los Angeles schools will close for two weeks, although Superintendent Austin Beutner indicated at a news conference it could extend beyond that. San Diego said it would keep schools closed until April 6.
“We will see what happens,” Beutner said. “The facts and the circumstances will tell us.”
Soon after the announcement from Los Angeles and San Diego, school districts in Long Beach (72,000 students) and Oakland (37,000) said they would also close — Long Beach until April 20 and Oakland until April 5.
San Diego parent Daniel Rodriguez said the closure will mean his 13-year-old daughter will be out for six weeks now since it will run into her spring break.
“I think it’s overreactive,” he said, adding that he was waiting for more details.
In Santa Clara County authorities ordered that as of Saturday and for at least three weeks there will be no gatherings of more than 100 people, excluding airports, office buildings, pharmacies and medical offices.
Jot Condie, who heads the California Restaurant Association, said some restaurants in tourist-dependent economies like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego had seen business plummet by 70 percent during the crisis.
“When the volume goes down by 70%, they are not barely turning a profit, they are hemorrhaging,” Condie said.
In Los Angeles, dozens of unionized hospitality workers applied for unemployment benefits Friday at the Hospitality Training Academy after their hours were cut.
Teresa Trejo, 46, of Inglewood, saw hours at all three of her jobs — a bartender at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Dodgers Stadium and The Forum — slashed to zero.
“You just feel so confused because you still have your life” and bills to pay, she said before filling out her application.
A wave of closures and postponements spanning everything from government offices to cultural events and sports followed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call this week for cancellation of all non-essential gatherings of 250 people or more.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez announced that Roman Catholics in the three-county region were dispensed from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass for the remaining weekends in March. The archdiocese said attendance at Mass would be limited to 250 people. A livestream of the LA cathedral service was also being made available.
Members of Saddleback Church, a megachurch with locations across Southern California, should gather in small groups to watch weekend services online, Pastor Rick Warren said in an email.
The goal of all authorities is to slow the virus’ spread to avoid overwhelming hospitals with those sickened by an illness that no one in the world has immunity to.
Most patients have mild or moderate symptoms such as a fever or cold, but severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems.